Rail service cancellations: northern mayors call on Rishi Sunak to treat train ‘chaos’ as an emergency

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There has been weeks of disruption to rail services across the north of England with hundreds of cancellations

Metro mayors have called on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Transport Secretary Mark Harper to treat the “chaos” in rail services across the north of England as an emergency and to “haul operators to the table to sort out this mess”.

Mayors from West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Manchester, Liverpool and North Tyneside held an emergency meeting on Thursday afternoon in the wake of weeks of disruption which has seen hundreds of services cancelled by a number of rail operators, including TransPennine Express, Avanti West Coast and Northern.

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Train operator TransPennine Express has come in for criticism from Sheffield MP and shadow transport minister Louise Haigh for service cancellationsTrain operator TransPennine Express has come in for criticism from Sheffield MP and shadow transport minister Louise Haigh for service cancellations
Train operator TransPennine Express has come in for criticism from Sheffield MP and shadow transport minister Louise Haigh for service cancellations

What did the mayors say?

In a statement, the five mayors said: “As thousands of last-minute cancellations continue to make life miserable for people in the North, and cause serious damage to the economy, the government remains in a state of paralysis having just appointed its third Transport Secretary in seven weeks.

“If this level of disruption was being experienced in other parts of the country, we believe action would already have been taken to improve matters. We do not accept that passengers in the North should be treated in this way and just expected to put up with it. We won’t.”

They said: “So today we are calling on the Prime Minister and his Transport Secretary Mark Harper to treat this emergency with the urgency it deserves. Only the government can haul operators to the table to sort out this mess.”

West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin called Thursday’s meeting which also included the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham; the mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram; the mayor of the North of Tyne, Jamie Driscoll; and the mayor of South Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard.

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Speaking in Leeds afterwards, Ms Brabin said they wanted to “put on record that we are sick to the back teeth of the situation, the shambles that we find ourselves in. “This chaos has impacted on millions of people’s lives. It’s also derailing our economic ambitions for our region. This is really important given the economic chaos which was brought on by the mini-budget.”

She said the five Labour mayors had three demands of government.

The first was for an urgent meeting with ministers to agree a long-term plan for transport in the north.

The second was for Harper to sit down with rail operators and the unions to reach an agreement on rest day working.

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The third was for the government to put TransPennine Express on notice relating to its performance as its contract is up for renewal next year.

Labour said more than 40 services were cancelled on Tuesday and more than 60 on Wednesday on TransPennine Express as this operator has seen 100s of cancellations in recent weeks due to staffing issues.

On the other side of the Pennines, Avanti West Coast has been under fire for months over cancellations, delays, slashed timetables and a lack of advanced tickets for journeys on the West Coast Main Line.

On Tuesday, the then rail minister Kevin Foster said the government is making preparations to intervene if Avanti fails to deliver “significant” improvements on the West Coast Main Line.

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What has the Department of Transport said?

The Department for Transport said on Thursday that Harper had invited northern leaders to a meeting as soon as possible.

A DfT spokeswoman said: “It’s unacceptable that poor levels of service and strikes are preventing hard-working people from going about their daily lives.

“The Government is investing billions into northern transport and is working closely with train operators to ensure new drivers are swiftly recruited and long-term solutions are put in place so passengers can travel confidently without disruption.

“The Department has written to northern leaders inviting them to meet with the Transport Secretary as soon as possible so, together, we can provide the reliable service passengers across the region deserve.”

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What have the rail operators said?

A spokeswoman for TransPennine Express said: “Prior to December 2021 TransPennine Express (TPE) had posted its best ever performance results and was subsequently recognised as ‘Train Operator of the Year’ at the Rail Business Awards.

“Since then, prolonged disruption affecting our services has been caused by a range of issues including ongoing high levels of train crew sickness, a persisting training backlog as a direct result of Covid, and infrastructure issues outside of TPE’s control. Combined, these factors have seen a number of on-the-day or ‘evening before’ cancellations being made.

“In normal circumstances, we have enough people to fully operate our scheduled timetable – and have more drivers now than ever before – however, the combination of factors has put unprecedented pressure on our ability to effectively operate our services.

“Our customers want, and deserve, reliable and punctual train services, and we are sorry we have not been able to consistently provide that due to the ongoing issues. TPE’s team continues to work flat-out to deliver higher levels of service delivery and to tackle the issues that are being experienced by customers.”

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An Avanti West Coast spokesman said on Thursday: “We know we’re not delivering the service our customers rightly expect and we apologise for the enormous frustration and inconvenience caused.

“Our customers and communities we serve deserve a dependable train service, so we’re currently working hard to rebuild our timetable in a resilient and sustainable way.

“Recently we stepped up our timetable adding extras services on our Birmingham and Manchester routes and there will be a further increase of the timetable in December. This will see three trains an hour to/from Manchester and at least two trains an hour between Birmingham and London with three trains an hour during peak times.

“Resolving this situation requires a robust plan that will allow us to gradually increase services without being reliant on traincrew overtime, which has fallen dramatically in recent weeks. We would like to thank our customers for their patience and understanding.”

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