Northern rail accused of prioritising north-west over north-east

Frances Perraudin North of England reporter
The Newcastle city council leader complained that ‘passengers in the north-east have seen trains cancelled in order to cover services in Manchester, and increased overcrowding on rush-hour services’. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Northern rail has reiterated its commitment to modernise trains in the north-east by the end of 2019 after Newcastle city council’s leader accused the beleaguered operator of prioritising services in the north-west during the continuing timetable crisis.

Passengers across the north of England have faced thousands of cancellations and delays on services run by Northern, a subsidiary of Arriva UK trains, since a new timetable was introduced in May. The train firm has blamed delayed engineering works and a shortage of trained drivers for the disruption.

Speaking earlier this week, following a meeting of council leaders in the north of England and Northern, Nick Forbes complained that “passengers in the north-east have seen trains cancelled in order to cover services in Manchester, and increased overcrowding on rush-hour services”.

He added that passengers deserved a decent level of compensation for disrupted services and an assurance that “the north-east will not become a permanent dumping ground for older trains”.

Mike Paterson, the regional director for Northern, admitted that some trains had been kept in the north-west to deal with the problems, which were worse in that region.

“Because of delays to the electrification of the Manchester to Preston (via Bolton) line, we had to re-plan those timetables at short notice and keep some diesel trains in the north-west to help deliver services to our customers on those lines affected by the delay,” he said.

“This has meant we were not able to deploy all the trains we wanted to in the north-east, but we are still delivering an improved timetable with an increased number of services and more refurbished trains than previously – with a daily average of over 90% running to time each day and no planned cancellations.

“At peak times we have increased the capacity where we can, and are continuing with our modernisation plans, which will see the removal of all Pacer trains. The full refurbishment of our fleet of trains in the north-east will be complete by December 2019, which will improve comfort and the overall journey experience for customers.”

Northern said in February that it would replace all Pacer trains by 2020, something that was stipulated in its contract with the government. Pacer trains, designed for short-term use, were introduced in the 1980s. They are made from a bus body welded on to a freight chassis and are criticised by commuters for being uncomfortable and noisy.

In a statement published in the Teesside Gazette in February, Northern admitted that customers in the north-east would not get “brand new trains” in their region, but “refurbished ‘as new’ trains”.

“These will feature free wifi, plug sockets, automated customer information screens and new seating – and some will even have full climate control,” said a spokesperson. “Our refurbished trains will feel like new and customers will experience a level of comfort not seen before on Northern services in the region.”

Dave Budd, the mayor of Middlesbrough, said it felt as if the north-west was prioritised when it came to rail travel. He acknowledged that that was because of the density of population, but said the railway line in the Tees Valley served Teesport, the third biggest port in the UK. “There’s a massive freight benefit as well as passengers,” he said.

Speaking to the Newcastle Chronicle on Wednesday, Forbes said: “What we need now is for passengers to be put first, and for the government to realise the north is as big a transport priority as the south.

“Northern rail has let people down. Passengers in the north-east have seen trains cancelled in order to cover services in Manchester, and increased overcrowding on rush-hour services.

“Those passengers deserve a decent level of compensation while they wait for the service to recover. The compensation offer must be extended to take into account the wider disruption caused to passengers who rely on Northern, alongside an assurance that the north-east will not become a permanent dumping ground for older trains.”