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TfGM lays bare Northern slump since 2016 franchise refresh, including many broken promises

A report set to be presented at a Greater Manchester Combined Authority board meeting this Friday has laid bare the staggering decline in performance across Northern since the franchise changed hands in 2016, including the many promises that were made but not yet delivered to customers.

The report, written by Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) CEO Jon Lamonte, looked at the performance figures across Northern since the franchise was renewed in April 2016.

Between then and April this year – with data covering the May timetable change not yet fully validated – performance declined from a moving annual average (MAA) of 89.3% in the first period to 85.4% at the end of the corresponding period in 2018. This means the TOC failed to meet its PPM target in every single period since June 2016.

The beleaguered operator experienced a significant performance drop in autumn last year, during which its PPM fell to a whopping 76.5% between November and December. It has since been unable to recover to pre-autumn levels, an issue which has only been compounded by weather issues, driver shortages and industrial action.

Since the franchise kicked off, all four of its geographical service groups have experienced a rise in cancelled services, with Lancashire and Cumbria suffering the most: almost 650 of its services were cancelled in period 13 this year compared to just 149 last year.

All service groups, apart from Merseyside City Lines, also saw an increase in the amount of trains running with less carriages than planned since the franchise started.

In his report, Lamonte restated Northern CEO David Brown’s view that Network Rail is to blame for the operator’s delays and disruptions since the May timetable shake-up. The service change, which was “the most complex and widespread in the country for 20 years,” was originally meant to be implemented in December last year but was pushed back due to “late infrastructure delivery by Network Rail,” namely the electrification of the line between Manchester and Preston via Bolton.

It was then only partially implemented in May this year because Network Rail was once again unable to complete the required upgrades in time, argued Lamonte, meaning Northern was unable to roll out its planned electric train timetable. It had to write a new timetable to fit within the national timetable changes “with four months as opposed to the usual 10 months, and one that offered a number of compromises particularly to GM.”

The operator claims that it only noticed the timetable wouldn’t work three days before it was implemented. It flagged its concerns with stakeholders but the severity of the issues remained unclear.

An emergency timetable was then implemented on 4 June, two weeks after the initial roll-out. It removed a number of services, mainly in the off-peak schedule, although the Lakes Line in Cumbria was completely halted for a couple of weeks.

“The purpose of this timetable was to provide greater levels of reliability and provide Northern with additional time to complete driver training and timetable analysis,” wrote Lamonte. “However, it is unclear how long the emergency timetable will be in place.”

Unfulfilled commitments

The CEO’s report also provided an overview of the commitments made to customers when the franchise was launched but that have not yet been delivered.

These include more trains per hour between Manchester and a number of locations; new route options and connections to new destinations; enhanced Sunday timetables offering extra services on some corridors; refurbished bi-mode trains between Manchester Airport and Windermere, and Alderley Edge/Stalybridge and Wigan North Western; and refurbished electric trains running between Manchester and Preston via Bolton.

Regarding the revamped bi-modes, TfGM believes that the build programme is now also behind schedule and will not be finished until later this year. The operator suggested that the trains require additional testing due to the new technology used and guaranteed that it has, where possible, supplemented the current fleet by reallocating units from elsewhere on the network.

Top image c. Michael McNiven


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