Rail bosses quizzed over new timetable shambles
Representatives from Network Rail and Northern appeared before a Greater Manchester combined authority committee to provide an update following delays and cancellations across the region.
Related: Today we take a stand against rail chaos: enough is enoughRelated: Northern boss apologises to Wigan commuters over rail chaosCoun Michael Winstanley urged them to improve communication with customers and Coun Fred Walker questioned whether passenger numbers had returned to normal.
Both Network Rail’s Martin Frobisher and Liam Sumpter from Northern reiterated apologies to the councillors and their constituents.
An interim timetable introduced in June remains in place with an inquiry set to take place following the widespread disruption.
Coun Winstanley, Conservative representative for Orrell ward and leader of Wigan council’s opposition, asked for communication with the public to be “a lot better and slicker”.
He said: “One of the most disappointing aspects is that we were on the threshold of a really positive, bold, exciting expansion of the railways.
“I accept that sometimes things go wrong and inevitably there will be delays but I think the communication around it and the way you handled it, it seemed to be no-one accepted responsibility for what had gone wrong.
“Northern said it was Network Rail, Network Rail said it was Northern, from an outsider looking in it looked like a total and utter shambles.”
In response, Mr Frobisher, Network Rail’s route managing director, said: “Can I just start by saying Network Rail is not blaming Northern.
“There’s no doubt we have contributed to the problem. We have been building major schemes, in this area the main one is the Manchester to Preston electrification scheme.
“We’ve had real difficulty with this scheme with really difficult ground conditions. We had some real practical difficulties that triggered many of these problems.”
Mr Sumpter, regional director for Northern, said his staff are now considering what services can be reinstated when the interim timetable ends on July 29.
He said: “I think you’re right in that we didn’t communicate what the challenge was going to be… but I can honestly say we didn’t know until very, very late in proceedings.
“As soon as the timetable change and the scale of the problems came to light we immediately put into place a contingency plan which was the interim timetable.
“That took out a relatively small number of services but enough to let the timetable breathe and let performance re-stabilise and enable us to deliver our training plan for drivers and conductors.”
Coun Walker, Labour member for Leigh East, said the rail problems will have had a knock-on impact on the borough’s roads. He asked whether passenger numbers had returned to normal levels in recent weeks.
He said: “If people design their lives around public transport, they buy houses based on how they can commute to the main areas of business. I happen to live in an authority that has mainly got commuters in it rather than home grown jobs.
“I recognise that people have to come back in the short-term (to using the rail services) but in the long term they might think they’re not going to buy a house that requires commuting.
“I’ve got people (in my ward), who already have tried to make alternative arrangements, sometimes it might benefit our bus services.
“But in the main what we’re talking about is throwing more and more people on the road, and all of our planning is the opposite to that.”
Mr Sumpter responded: “In the immediate aftermath of the timetable change, we saw a reduction in the number of people using the services, as you might expect.
“And I’m sure there’s anecdotal evidence of the roads becoming even more congested because people didn’t want to take the risk. And, once again, we apologise for that.
“I recognise that people having to change their daily routine is not in any way a good thing.
“Our role was to introduce some stability with the interim timetable to give people some comfort and we have seen passenger numbers rebound across large parts of the North West but it continues to be a challenge in terms of passenger numbers.”
At the start of the GMCA housing, planning and environment committee meeting the rail bosses each issued statements apologising for the disruptions of recent weeks.
Mr Frobisher said: “I live in the north and have seen the impact of this on friends and family. In the overall context it is part of the Great North Rail Project.
“We’re building a vast scheme across the north and I believe the improvements to infrastructure is really needed.
“It has been a really complex scheme, it has been really difficult, but I genuinely believe the infrastructure is essential.”
Mr Sumpter added: “I’d like to echo that, we are genuinely sorry for the disruption that the timetable change caused for the people of Greater Manchester.
“I live in the north and I’ve seen the impact on my staff and commuters and it has been a very difficult time, I’m very sorry that between us we have contributed towards that.”