Following Thursday’s announcement from the government that the Northern Rail franchise would soon become financially unviable, and alternative arrangements would need to be made, I met managers from the company yesterday to ask for more information about our local service.
They acknowledged that the service had been very poor, especially around the Christmas period, partly as a result of driver leave and sickness. I said problems had begun well before Christmas, and still continued into this week. They told me that things should improve in the coming weeks – driver training is now complete, new trains will start to run on our line from February, and all the Pacers will be gone by May. I asked about the length of the new trains – too often, 2-carriage trains are sent during rush hours, which simply don’t have the capacity we need. They agreed that passenger numbers have increased, but even so, it seems that the new trains will be only two or three carriages long (though they could combine 2-carriage units to make a 4-carriage train). And I asked why we should believe any of the promises of improvements when we have heard this so often before, and things have gone from bad to worse. They said they were confident there would be improvements this year, but also told me about the very significant challenges that remain, and the further substantial investment that will be needed, including to lengthen platforms to allow for longer trains to increase capacity, new signalling so they can send more trains more frequently along the track, and new platforms at Piccadilly station to enable more through trains.
Later this month, they will know the government’s decision on the replacement of the franchise, and the outcome of a trade union ballot on arrangements for Sunday service cover. So I asked for a further update early next month. While it’s clear not all the problems are the fault of Northern (delays to upgrading track were the responsibility of Network Rail, and investment in new signalling was halted by the government), there’s no question that passengers have endured an appalling service from Northern for far too long. I’ll be keeping a very close watch on developments over the coming weeks.