Poor train services in the north of England due to ‘toxic combination’ of problems

Video report by ITV Granada's Political correspondent Lise McNally

As passengers faced the second day of the national rail strike by the RMT union, MPs have been grilling the bosses of some of the country's main train operators.

Thousands of trains have been cancelled across the region at short notice in recent months, with TransPennine Express, Avanti West Coast and Northern all affected.

Latest figures from July to September this year show the biggest operator, Northern Rail's punctuality was only 62 per cent.

TransPennine Express, which operates between Liverpool and the North East, managed below 56 per cent.

And bottom of the pile was Avanti West Coast, which runs services to London, was below 39 per cent.

Operators say problems with rail services in the north of England are being caused by a “toxic combination” of issues.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus, was asked by the Transport Select Committee why operators in the North have struggled compared with those in other parts of Britain.

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said problems with rail services are due to a ‘toxic combination’ of issues Credit: House of Commons/PA

He replied: “It’s a rather toxic combination which is different for each company."

“With Avanti, I think the problems probably date back to the days of Virgin – the previous franchise – and the winding-down of that franchise."

“Then Covid came along and made training drivers difficult."

“I understand those are some of the issues that led to the thinning-out of the timetable."

“Clearly there’s been some sort of quite serious breakdown at Avanti in industrial relations overall."

“The staff-management relationships don’t seem to be good and need resetting in some way.”

Avanti West Coast cut its schedules in August. Credit: PA Images

He went on: “With TransPennine, I think the industrial relations issues have been very corrosive and have clearly undermined their ability to provide a reliable service.”

Avanti West Coast cut its schedules in August to limit short-notice cancellations.

It reinstated some of the lost services in new timetables introduced on Sunday.

But Mr Smith said the overall reduction means customers are paying more to travel.

He told the committee: “Passengers on Avanti have experienced the rather unpleasant effect of there being a much-reduced timetable – therefore less services to choose from – but the prices have effectively gone up.

“Both the prices of advanced tickets and the requirement to often actually have to buy a full-price anytime or off-peak return, which can be very expensive.”

Lord McLoughlin, who chairs Transport for the North, said rail companies must address the issue of reliability. Credit: House of Commons/PA

Lord McLoughlin, who chairs Transport for the North, which advises the Government on the region’s transport needs, also gave evidence to the MPs.

He said: “One of the most important things for people wanting to use the train is reliability and knowing that the service that they want to use is going to be there.

“That is the greatest problem the companies have to address.

“There has been a total let-down with unreliable services, not being able to get tickets, not knowing whether services are going to run, and also getting that information out.”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper claimed it is “up to the unions to decide” if they want train services in northern England to improve.

In a written statement to Parliament, the Cabinet minister explained that he has given TransPennine Express and Northern “the scope they need to put a meaningful and generous” offer on rest-day working to drivers’ union Aslef

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said information is being collected to keep an eye out for new Covid variants Credit: PA

He wrote: “Aslef need to enter negotiations and put any new deal to its members and, if accepted, do all it can to make that deal work.

“TransPennine has made a generous revised offer to Aslef and it was almost immediately rejected without being put to members.

“It is up to the unions to decide if they want to improve services, for the good of passengers and the wider economy in the North.”

Mr Harper said he is in favour of “breaking the railway’s dependence on rest-day working altogether”.

He added: “No modern and successful business relies on the goodwill of its staff to deliver for its customers in the evening and at the weekend.

“I want a railway with rewarding jobs, contracted to deliver every service promised to the public.”