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.