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Disturbing lack of assurance over plans to fix ‘abysmal’ timetable chaos

It is “disturbing” that neither Network Rail nor the transport operators are able to provide reassurance that their plans to improve the “currently abysmal service levels” and deliver promised network improvements after May’s disastrous timetable shake-up, leaders have said.

The comments were made by Cllr Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council and the region’s representative on the Transport for the North board, after the appearance of representatives from NR, Northern and TransPennine Express at a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) meeting yesterday.

During the meeting, WYCA members discussed how passengers suffered delays, cancellations and overcrowding since the new timetable was introduced on 20 May – and while some routes have stabilised since then, some commuters still face “an unacceptable level of delays and cancellations.”

Blake, who is currently leading a review of the circumstances leading up to the timetable change alongside rail minister Jo Johnson, said it was good that TOCs and Network Rail apologised for the chaos and acknowledged that lessons need to be learned.

But she added: “The real issue that emerged today is just how confused and fragmented our rail system is. Indeed, the only thing that is clear is the total lack of accountability among the companies charged with running our railways, with no one person taking ultimate responsibility for ensuring our rail system works for passengers and our economy.”

Despite repeated complaints about a lack of accountability, last month rail veteran Chris Gibb argued that creating a single independent role for timetable sign-offs would be unrealistic.

Blake continued: “Most disturbingly, although we are now getting a clearer understanding of what went catastrophically wrong when the new timetables were introduced, neither the operators nor Network Rail were able to provide reassurance that what they are planning will improve the current abysmal service levels and deliver the promised improvements to the network and services.”

Responding to transport secretary Chris Grayling’s statement to the BBC that his concern is to ensure trains work, the Leeds council leader said it’s encouraging that he “finally recognises it’s his responsibility” to ensure the system is effective, but argued the current state of affairs is unfit for purpose.

There have been repeated calls demanding that Grayling also take responsibility for the crisis itself, with Theresa May recently having to throw her full support behind him and reiterate her “full confidence” in the minister.

‘Hugely fragmented’

Cllr Susan Hinchliffe, chair of the WYCA, also commented that yesterday’s board meeting underlined the “confused way the rail industry is structured,” adding: “It’s hugely fragmented and therefore none of them has an incentive or overall responsibility for the bigger picture which should be about putting the rail customer first.

“This also creates the absurd situation where passengers are paying to compensate themselves through the taxpayer-funded Network Rail while the privately-owned rail operators are investing profits in the state-run European railways, where their parent companies are located.”

She revealed that the combined authority will be considering the outcomes of the Blake/Johnson review this autumn, at which point she hopes Network Rail and TOCs “will be in a better position to give assurances” that this situation won’t repeat itself.

Plans to move back to full timetables in the north have been thrown into doubt following a recent TfN meeting, with board members complaining about insufficient assurance that plans to move the full May timetable in September are fully deliverable.

Blake will be speaking about rail investment in the north at this year’s TransCityRail, taking place on 4 October in Manchester.


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