Train chaos must be catalyst for genuine change, warn MPs as new timetable looms

Halifax train station
Halifax train station

The chaotic introduction of new train timetables in May, which caused delays and cancellations from which the industry has still not recovered, must be the catalyst for “genuine change” for passengers, a damning report from MPs says today.

Its savage criticism of the state-owned infrastructure company Network Rail, as well as the regional operator Northern Rail and the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, comes as punctuality across the region falls to below 40 per cent – the lowest figure of the year – and just five days before another timetable rollout.

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MPs on the Commons Transport Committee said May’s “unprecedented”, changes caused “a prolonged period of intensely inconvenient, costly and potentially dangerous disruption for passengers” across the North.

They accuse Mr Grayling of acting unreasonably in absolving himself of blame for the fiasco, even though the rail companies did not fully brief him.

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The cross-party MPs also accuse Northern of “failure to comprehend the magnitude of the situation” or to give passengers information. They say the worst-affected season ticket holders should now get a discount on their 2019 tickets, equal to the 3.1 per cent price rise announced last week, and that compensation should be automatic in future.

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Lilian Greenwood, the Nottingham Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “It is extraordinary and totally unacceptable that no-one took charge of the situation and acted to avert the May timetabling crisis.

“Instead of experiencing the benefits of much-needed investment in our railways, around one in five passengers experienced intensely inconvenient and costly disruption to their daily lives.”

She said last week’s price hike “adds insult to’ injury” and warns that passengers cannot wait for “fundamental reform” until 2020, when Mr Grayling’s review of the industry is due to be published.

Northern failed to run 11 per cent of its daily services, and there were “very substantial” knock-on effects on TransPennine Express.

But the MPs said the statistics could not do justice to the “severe effects” on people’s lives.

They said: “The situation was chaotic. The disruption cost passengers money, with working people forced to pay for taxis and additional childcare costs.

“Businesses and local economies suffered, children were late for school, anxiety about getting to and from work put a considerable strain on people’s mental health.”

They added that passengers were subjected to “uncontrolled risks” in overcrowded stations and that “effective communication broke down”.

It concludes: “This year was intended to be a positive story for rail users. Instead the passenger railway perhaps reached its nadir. This must now be the catalyst for genuine change.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We have already worked with the industry to deliver special compensation.”

schemes on Northern, TransPennine Express and GTR, which provides the equivalent of up to eight per cent of the cost of an annual season ticket for those most severely impacted.”

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said Mr Grayling should resign, but added: “He won’t, of course. Everything is always someone else’s fault, as far as he’s concerned.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We have already worked with the industry to deliver special compensation schemes, which provide the equivalent of up to eight per cent of the cost of an annual season ticket for those most severely impacted.”

The MPs’ report follows the revelation that in some parts of Yorkshire, fewer than one train in three reached its destination on time in October. Average punctuality across the region was only 39.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, another new timetable is being rolled out on Sunday, with the independent watchdog Transport Focus, saying the industry knew it “must deliver a smooth set of changes”.

Its head, Anthony Smith, said: “They must show they’ve learned lessons and are acting to improve performance.”

Labour’s transport spokesman, Andy McDonald, accused rail industry leaders of “passing the buck” over responsibility for the chaos.