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Northern Rail Timetable Changes

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 24 May 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

It is a pleasure to have secured this debate, but that is in sharp contrast to the distinct lack of pleasure that hundreds of my constituents are experiencing as they try to travel to and from Manchester following this week’s introduction of Northern rail’s new, chaotic timetable. Northern rail’s revision to its timetable is negatively affecting services from Hazel Grove, Woodsmoor and Davenport train stations at the morning peak hour of travel, and there are also problems with the removal of the last evening service from Manchester to Romiley. I want to bring to the Minister’s attention the experiences of passengers as a result of the new timetable, and to show how unacceptable the situation is.

This debate is, of course, about the Northern rail timetable changes that have caused such misery to my hon. Friend’s commuters, which I am sorry to hear about, but unfortunately the situation is the same with Southern railway at the other end of the country. I make a plea to the Department for Transport to impress on the franchises the need to sort this out. The timetable change has been worked on for many months, so they really should have been prepared.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. There is surely no north-south divide in this situation.

The fault of the services, as I will explain, can be traced back to significant delays to the Network Rail upgrade works on the electrification of the Manchester to Preston via Bolton route. That has had a knock-on effect on Northern’s ability to run its timetable properly. Network Rail is ultimately the Government’s responsibility. What are Northern rail, Network Rail and the Department for Transport going to do to urgently solve the problem so that people can get into Manchester in the morning for work, so that pupils can get to school, and so that people can get home again?

The greatest—but by no means only—problem with the new timetable relates to the glaring gap in the morning rush-hour commuter service to Manchester. The service originates in Buxton and picks up passengers from Hazel Grove station, as well as from Woodsmoor and Davenport stations, which are just outside my constituency boundary but still used by a great number of my constituents. The train service is vital for people to get to work.

The new timetable, which came into effect this week, removed the two most popular peak-time trains: the 7.50 am and 8.01 am from Hazel Grove station, which went on to call at Woodsmoor and Davenport. That leaves a glaring hole. The new timetable has three trains in the space of half an hour between 7.9 am to 7.35 am, but then nothing calls at those three stations until just after 8.20 am. As I said, Hazel Grove no longer has the 7.50 am or 8.01 am service, and the 37-minute gap between 7.35 am to 8.12 am is far too long at that time of the morning.

Hazel Grove does fare slightly better, because an East Midlands train does call there, but it does not stop at later stations. Woodsmoor now has a 45-minute gap in service between 7.38 and 8.23, and then there is nothing until after 9 am. Similarly, Davenport has a 45-minute gap in service between 7.40 and 8.25, and then nothing until after 9 am.

The changes are having a massive effect on people’s ability to get into Manchester before 8.30 am. Oddly, from 9 am, the services resume to three an hour—at 10, 20, and 35 minutes past respectively. That is obviously a better service, but it comes too late for people to get into Manchester for work, and the situation is causing massive disruption. Many commuters are faced with the choice of being late for work because of taking a later train, or being forced to take an earlier train only to arrive at their place of work unreasonably early.

The change in the time of the arrival of the train from Buxton from 8.04 to 7.38 causes problems for local schools. For example, many pupils at Stockport Grammar School used the 8.04 service. The new timetable will have a significant effect on parents having to co-ordinate dropping off their children in the morning and arranging suitable childcare.

It is not only the gap in services that is causing the problem. The loss of two train services means that the same numbers of passengers are forced into fewer trains, so when a train does arrive, passengers have to stand in cramped conditions—they do not even have the privilege of a seat. People are in effect paying a premium rate to travel at that time although there are actually more regular services off-peak.

The situation was already bad with the 7.50 and 8.01 services, as they were generally quite overcrowded. One commuter even told me that last week their train had to be met by an ambulance at Piccadilly station because a passenger had passed out due to a combination of the hot weather and cramped conditions.

These changes will have a damaging and hurtful impact on the family and professional life of many of my constituents. Sadly, the view I hear from residents is that they have the impression that Northern, the Department for Transport and Network Rail do not care about passengers. There is extreme anger. The two words that have appeared most often in the dozens of letters and emails I have received on the subject have been “ridiculous” and “unacceptable”, and I must agree.

It is not just the weekday morning service that has been impacted, as the Sunday timetable also changed. It sees the last train to Romiley in my constituency from Manchester Piccadilly moved from 22.20 to 21.45, so the service runs 35 minutes earlier. That means people are no longer able to use the service after visiting Manchester on a Sunday evening, particularly if they are going to theatres and concerts as most events finish at 10 pm or later. The 22.20 train was already too early as passengers usually had to leave events so that they could make the last train home. Now there is absolutely no chance of people getting the last train at 21.45. Again, the situation is ridiculous and unacceptable.

I know that the Government are working hard to rebalance the economy and to support northern cities such as Manchester and the conurbation through the northern powerhouse strategy. Getting commuter train timetables right is essential for that. The impact of poorer services—cancelled trains, uneven timetables, less available rolling stock and overcrowding—will spill out from the rail network and on to our roads. The upshot will be that people are forced back into their cars. Money was recently invested at Hazel Grove station on a new multi-storey car park to encourage train travel, but now the morning service is so poor as to put passengers off. As the Minister knows—I have raised this many times in this House—the A6 corridor from my constituency into Manchester is one of the most heavily congested roads in the country, so a modal shift from rail back to road is not the direction in which we ought to be heading.

My hon. Friend is spot on in identifying the cause of the challenges faced by Northern rail with the implementation of the new timetable: the delay caused by electrification on the Manchester-Bolton-Preston line, which has had huge consequences. He has articulated the impact on his constituents incredibly clearly, but this is also happening in other parts of the franchise, including across the Pennines on the Leeds-Harrogate-York line. Does he agree that it is critical that Network Rail works with the Northern franchise holder and the Government, and keeps colleagues informed so that we know where we are? Does he agree that it should conclude the work as early as possible while planning appropriately? This is about planning to get more people off the roads and on to the railways.

My hon. Friend’s assessment is correct. We cannot get into a situation in which the buck is simply passed from one organisation to the other. It is clear that people need their commuter trains, and that is the end of the story as far as I am concerned.

This whole affair is clearly a great disappointment for Northern rail passengers, who need and deserve a proper service. However, I fear it could also detract from otherwise welcome and long-awaited improvements such as electrification, the 1,300 extra train services introduced across the Northern rail network, and the replacement of the uncomfortable, creaking and quite frankly detested Pacer trains, which I am assured is still on track.

Northern rail has been responding to customers by saying there is nothing it can do about the new timetable. It explains that the timetable is not the result of any decision made by Northern rail, but that it is, as my hon. Friend suggested, delays encountered by the Bolton electrification project, which is of course being delivered, albeit rather slowly, by Network Rail, that have had an effect on the timetable bidding process.

When Northern rail bid for the May 2018 timetable back in autumn 2017, it planned to include services in what has now become known as “the gap”, but those services were rejected by Network Rail, which has the ultimate say on the timetable. Such rejections are not uncommon in a timetable negotiation process, and in the normal course of things, the train operator would have negotiated with Network Rail to move services around a little to make sure all the services could fit in.

During the negotiation period, however, Network Rail announced that the electrification programme from Manchester to Preston via Bolton would not be ready in time for the May changes, which brings the delay to the completion of the project to two years. In the short term, the situation has severely affected plans to increase services and capacity across the Northern network.

Northern rail received the notification in January 2018. To be fair, that was incredibly late in the process, given that it normally takes at least six months to build a new timetable. Northern rail’s timetable planners have been working solidly on the new timetable since then, but have not been able to fit services into the gap.

To make matters worse, Northern rail had to build its timetable around those of other operators that had already had their timetables agreed by Network Rail. Just as airlines have to secure runway slots, rail operators have to bid for platform space at stations for their trains. The problem for Hazel Grove, Woodsmoor and Davenport services is congestion at Manchester Piccadilly.

The morning peak into Manchester, as could well be imagined, is incredibly congested, with many other operators bringing people in from right across the country and the wider region. It will be even busier from May, with TransPennine Express services coming into Piccadilly and heading to Yorkshire.

I have no doubt that Northern rail wanted to run services in the gap but, due to how congested things are at Piccadilly, it seems that that is just not possible. Apparently no more services will fit in. If Northern rail had been advised three months earlier of the delays to the Bolton project, there is every chance that it would have been able to maintain the existing peak service and build a better new timetable, if not one as good as it was. Regrettably, Northern rail did not have that chance.

When I met Northern rail’s regional director in April to discuss these issues, I said it was unacceptable for passengers to be deprived of morning services, particularly given the substantial gap in the timetable. I made it clear that the proposals will cause considerable inconvenience to all commuters. Following that meeting, the regional director undertook to make representations to Network Rail to see whether a compromise could be found.

There has been one glimmer of success in this whole affair. Residents close to Rose Hill station in Marple contacted me about the hour gap in the outbound evening service between 5.09 pm and 6.10 pm from Manchester Piccadilly, which had arisen because Network Rail had, bizarrely, scheduled a maintenance train to be on the line at the time. However, following my meeting with Northern, it agreed to run a 5.34 pm departure in the new timetable to provide an extra evening service. That is a small bit of good news. I was pleased to be able to work with Friends of Rose Hill Station on this, and I wish to place on the record my thanks for all its hard work.

Northern rail is placing the blame for this sorry situation on Network Rail. As Network Rail comes under the control of the Department for Transport, I am looking to the Government at least to bang heads together and hold these organisations to account.

In conclusion, I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. How can this terrible service represent value for money for commuters? Does he agree that the time has come for Transport for the North, the regional transport body, to conduct a formal assessment of whether Northern rail is in breach of its performance targets, as set out in its franchise agreements? If that is determined to be the case, what action can Transport for the North take? What are the reasons for the further delay to the biggest infrastructure project necessary for Northern’s modernisation—the electrification of the Manchester to Preston route via Bolton—which has caused this mess up of the timetabling process? What assurances can he give that this work will not be further delayed? Do passengers really have to wait six months for the next timetable review, or can the Minister promise today to get things moving much more speedily? I am determined to keep working constructively with all concerned to get the urgent improvements to rail services that my constituents deserve, and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.

Thank you for allowing me to speak briefly in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also thank the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) for letting me do so and congratulate him on securing the debate. I promise to be brief, as I did when securing the opportunity to speak. Let me try to distil how urgently we are calling on the Government to intervene on the issue of Northern rail. The timetable issue is very significant and the hon. Gentleman set it out cogently. It is simply not acceptable that Network Rail’s failure to deliver on time is causing such carnage right across the north of England, for his constituents and mine.

Let me briefly set out the situation we have seen this week as a result of the change in the timetables. This May was supposed to be the moment when, after the months of suffering that my constituents have been through because of totally inadequate services from Northern, all of the jam arrived. We were supposed to have new carriages and an improved timetable, and then it would all have been worth while.

Yesterday, however, constituents were getting in touch with me to show the situation at Ulverston station. At school leaving time, 3.15 pm to 3.20 pm, children who now have to leave school early to get on to these services because of the changed timetable—that damages their education—turned up to find a single-carriage train coming from Lancaster. It was already full, but there were an estimated 200 students at Ulverston station, at least 50 of whom were left behind. The following train was cancelled. There is a clear safeguarding issue here.

It is vital the Government take heed of the situation. We have been urging the Minister’s colleagues to take this up for months. There are finally signs that they are waking up to the travesty of Northern rail’s services, but will the Minister please take back the message that we are experiencing a truly dire situation on the Furness line, up the Cumbria coastline and on the Windermere line in Cumbria, all of which are now operated by Northern? Not only are schoolchildren affected, but passengers are absolutely at their wits’ end and local businesses are clearly being damaged by the lack of reliability.

I understand that the Secretary of State said this week that Northern rail’s failures were now his No. 1 priority—well, okay, after all this time we will take him at his word, but it is vital that he delivers on this. There are things that can be done, not least because the performance is so bad that it is surely time for the Department formally to investigate whether Northern is meeting its basic customer service obligations. What can be done to unlock this deadlock with Network Rail? How can we get back to the kind of service that people pay top whack for and are simply not getting?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) on securing this debate and thank my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for their contributions. We have been reminded that this is not just about Northern rail, although it is clearly central in this instance, but is an issue that affects other parts of the country, other parts of the north and parts of the south, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove has given us an excellent opportunity to discuss the recent timetable changes. The debate is timely because we are still in the lee of the changes, which were launched less than a week ago and which constitute—we are reliably informed—the biggest change to network timetables in at least a generation. My hon. Friend has proved himself a vigorous and effective campaigner in many different areas, and this debate underlines that: it is the last debate before the recess, yet my hon. Friend is here fighting the case for his constituents. I salute him for that. He is doing so even though this issue was raised in the exchanges on yesterday’s urgent question and again in oral questions this morning. There has rightly been a consolidated set of interrogations of the Government, and it is now on the record from every conceivable angle. I appreciate that.

I join the Minister in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg). As someone who occasionally travels up to the north, I hope that it might be possible for the Minister, with the help of the rail industry, to put out a general statement over the weekend about how the changes are settling in. If the changes are having some adverse effects not only in the north, as my hon. Friend set out well, but in the south, as was illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), our passengers should be able to know what they can expect from next week on and whether, if there are glitches, they will be cured within six months, rather than everyone having to wait until the next major change.

My hon. Friend neatly segues me on to my next topic. His point is well landed and well taken account of, and it will undoubtedly feed back to colleagues and officials, but as he will be aware, it does not require a PhD in cryptology or the detective skills of a Sherlock Holmes to realise that I am the Roads Minister and therefore will not be giving direct instructions to officials in this regard. Nevertheless, I shall ensure that due regard is taken of the point that he raises, and rightly so. For that reason, I may be a little less crisp on the detail than some of my colleagues on the rail side would be, but I assure all Members that their considerations will be heard and taken account of.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove will know, Northern is now running hundreds more services compared with last week. Clearly, there is an upside to this situation as well as a downside. By 2020, there will be more than 2,500 extra services a week with room for 40,000 extra passengers, and these will be, by and large, faster and more comfortable journeys, with new and direct services across the north and beyond. Indeed, this week’s timetable change, although we have properly and appropriately focused on the negative feedback that has occurred, has also been one that has delivered an extra 1,682 train services a week across the network.

As I have said, the Department for Transport is monitoring the situation very carefully. My colleagues have made it clear that if these teething problems are not resolved in the coming days, they will hold the industry to account—not merely the operators, but Network Rail itself, which is, I am afraid, at the heart of the problems that we have at the moment.

The beginning of the week, as my hon. Friends have noted, was a challenging time for customers of Northern and the TransPennine Express, and operators have appropriately apologised for the disruption. It is sometimes forgotten that they were upfront—perhaps not upfront enough—about the kind of disruption that they were expecting and the scale and the number of the changes. It is also right to note—the Secretary of State noted this himself earlier today—that many thousands of railway staff are working flat out to deliver the benefits of this enormous investment programme, and we should be celebrating their efforts. No one, least of all I or my colleagues, or indeed any Member of this House, wishes to see passengers face disruption, let alone on the scale that has been identified in the specific cases that have been picked out today. We understand the frustration that many have felt with this week’s service. The hope is that passengers will become a little more understanding as these initial issues are addressed and as the wider benefits start to feed through.

As colleagues across the House will know, in this case, the franchises are managed by the Rail North Partnership jointly on behalf of the Department and Transport for the North. I am assured that the team, which is based in Leeds, has been closely monitoring the situation and liaising with both operators. There is a timetable recovery plan against which Northern expect to be monitored by the Rail North Partnership team. In response to my hon. Friend’s question, I would not be surprised if a slightly more formal process of internal assessment were set up.

It is absolutely right for passengers to be compensated if they are affected by disruption. I hope that it is understood across the House that the Department has, with some effectiveness, worked with train operators to promote passengers’ awareness of their compensation rights. Rail passengers are now more willing and more able than ever to demand and to receive, without undue disruption to their own timetables or cost, the compensation that they are due. Figures published for 2016-17 showed that more than £73 million was paid out to successful claimants—an increase of 63.8% on the previous year.

Both Northern and TransPennine Express operate this delay repay compensation scheme, which allows rail passengers to claim compensation for each delay of more than 30 minutes or more whatever its cause. There are no exclusions for weather or for other delays outside the control of the rail industry. One suspects that quite a lot of this compensation will spike as a result of the experience that we have had over the past few days.

In the case of multi-modal tickets, delay repay compensation is payable for delays that occur on the rail element of journeys covered by these tickets. Of course, the train operating companies and the relevant local transport authorities remain responsible for this policy. The Department has worked very closely with the train operators to make those compensation claims as swift and as simple as possible, including through online claim forms, smartcards and online apps.

Let me turn now to the timetable. Northern has planned for some time to introduce these changes in two phases—one in December 2017 and the other in May 2018, with the latter being larger and more relevant. These were supposed to be underpinned by planned line speed improvements and electrification of the route between Manchester and Preston. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove, in a very incisive analysis, put his finger on the central problem, which was that this electrification did not take place on schedule and that had all of these knock-on effects, and of course, in a network, knock-on effects themselves have knock-on effects and the result creates further disruption.

The effect of the delays to the completion of the Manchester to Preston upgrade meant that Northern had to move some of its service enhancements to a later date. Further service enhancements for Northern and TransPennine Express are planned for introduction from the end of this year through until 2020. I am sure that colleagues will be working closely with the operators to ensure that they are put in place with minimum disruption. As a result, although the operators will be delivering an increase of 1,300 new services a week from May 2018, 900 services a week—disappointingly for customers—will not be delivered until the infrastructure is ready. Once that happens, it will be a further improvement.

It became apparent in the early part of this year that the electrification process would not be completed on schedule. My hon. Friend rightly targets the question whether enough notice was given at that time. This required a lot of rethinking and rejigging by Northern. Although we are in the midst of significant operational challenges, I am afraid to say that it is appropriate to recognise that they have not yet ended. Once wishes that it were not so, but there may still be some further localised service disruption. In a way, that is to be expected with any new timetable, but it is all the more regrettable given the current circumstances. Northern has assured us that it will continue to do everything it can to make certain that there is minimal service disruption and to keep customers informed. Officials in the Department have focused on ensuring that customers know that timetables are changing.

I will not go further than my hon. Friend in addressing the specific issues that he has experienced in his constituency and on the Buxton and Hazel Grove line into Manchester Piccadilly. He has done a good and accurate job of bringing these issues to the forefront of the House’s attention. It is worth pointing out, however, that we will continue to see further improvements over time.

In Greater Manchester, Northern will begin to operate two trains an hour between Buxton and Manchester Piccadilly, significantly increasing the capacity on one of the most popular lines into the city. There will also be six trains an hour on weekdays between Rochdale and Manchester Victoria, as well as an hourly Sheffield to Manchester Piccadilly service every day. In Merseyside and Cheshire, Northern has made it clear that it will operate two weekday trains every hour between Southport and Manchester Victoria, two morning peak services from Southport to Alderley Edge via Manchester Piccadilly and two evening peak services from Alderley Edge to Southport via Manchester Piccadilly. A host of other changes and improvements have been put in place.

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the frequency improvements and particularly the upgrade of the rolling stock, with the removal of the Pacers. In the context that the franchise is improving and has ambitious long-term plans—I ought to own up that I was a Minister at the time of the franchise renewal so am slightly marking my own homework—we are talking about identifying the blockage that is stopping the benefits being delivered. Can he take back to the Department and all relevant officials the message that we need a concentrated effort on removing that blockage, with the completion of the electrification works, to allow the significant benefits of the new franchise ambitions to be delivered for the people of the north?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point is all the more forceful from someone with his experience and terrific track record in the Department, and officials and those in the industry will take it properly seriously.

If we look more widely, the position remains in many ways extremely positive. The Government will have spent more than £13 billion between 2015 and 2020 on improving and modernising transport in various forms across the north. We are building HS2—the first new north-south railway in this country for over a century—and will be providing better journeys through the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, albeit once the current disruption has settled. We are also investing well over £1 billion in improvements through the Great North rail project. As has been mentioned, Northern and TransPennine Express trains will be brand new or completely refurbished, and all Pacer trains will be gone. All that is to be welcomed.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove and all colleagues for the contributions they have made. Once this present phase has been completed, passengers on Northern rail will benefit significantly through some 1,300 extra services a week and rail users will have many things to be hopeful about for the future—not just brand-new trains but improvements to stations as well to service quality. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), has spoken to the chief executive of Transport for the North and the Mayor of Greater Manchester to underline his and the Department’s commitment to improving performance for passengers. We continue to work closely with rail companies to drive down cancellations, and to support Network Rail and the wider industry in delivering these significant improvements. I suggest that those are all things for which we will ultimately be very grateful.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.