Northern Rail Timetable Changes

Part of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community – in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 24th May 2018.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:36 pm, 24th May 2018

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 was 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 owed. 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 and 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.