Further to Minute No.O&S/19 (2019/20), to receive an update from a representative of Northern Rail (10.30 a.m.).
Representatives from Northern Rail, Craig Harrup and Owain Roberts, made a presentation to the Members of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
Members were informed of the new service group and regular Manchester Airport to Cumbria (Furness and Lakes Line) service which had seen an improvement since being introduced in July 2019. The service included an increased volume of new and refurbished trains with modern facilities such as air conditioning, plug sockets, table seating, Wi-Fi and on board information screens with a new three – car train. Members were informed of the improved service on the Furness and Lakes Lines with some challenges remaining on the Manchester Airport routes. These challenges included scheduling of 12,000 training days for new train drivers, reliability of new trains extreme weather and rail network congestion at the Castlefield Corridor. The Northern Rail representative emphasised the ongoing work by the rail industry to resolve issues around the congestion for trains going in and out of Manchester.
The Northern Rail representatives drew Members’ attention to the increased number of stops along the Lakes and Furness Lines, with the hope of introducing shorter train journeys and increased stops at Lancaster in May 2020. They highlighted various station upgrades across some the Lakes and Furness Lines such as the toilets being refurbished, customer information systems installed, public address systems and the Arnside footbridge refurbishment. Furthermore, Members were made aware of the bid submitted for a ramp at Staveley Station to provide disabled access.
Members were notified of Northern Rail’s work to promote Cumbria. These works included the launch of a new marketing campaign at stations and online, which had led to an increase in the number of Advance Purchase Ticket sales for commuters. Members were made aware of Northern Rail’s agreement with MyCumbria card users, which provided 34% discount on off peak journeys in Cumbria, its Smart Season Tickets services, with over six hundred ticket machines installed and investment in App Development.
The Northern Rail representatives provided an update on the ongoing negotiations with trade unions to resolve the disputes over Sunday working and having conductors on all services. Members were informed that an agreement in principle had been reached. Northern Rail highlighted their ongoing work with community rail partnership groups which had helped to improve the relationship with locals, the standard of services and improvements to stations in Cumbria.
The presentation was concluded by highlighting future plans for the end of the current Northern franchise, introduction of the remainder of the new trains and working with the industry on improving rail infrastructure and alternative fuels such as battery and hydrogen powered trains.
Members thanked Northern Rail’s representative for their update on the work that had been carried out to date. Members during discussion reiterated their concerns at the difficulties being faced by students, tourists and businesses, as well as the economic impact on South Lakeland when trains had been delayed or cancelled. Members felt that the unreliability of the service was discouraging people from using the train regularly. Further discussion raised a question over how the services would be affected when the franchise ended and how the new service provider would rebuild the trust that had been lost in recent years.
Members’ attention was drawn to the performance figures on the Lakes Line that indicated an improvement in the service. The Northern Rail representatives informed Members that the issues relating to reliability of the lines had been linked to the congestion in the Castlefield corridor and that this problem would persist after the franchise ends. The Northern Rail Representatives informed Members of continued work with Network Rail and bus companies to ensure smooth running of trains and any replacement bus services. They added that an industry wide approach on how to address the congestion at the Castlefied Corridor to prevent further delays was needed.
Members expressed the need for there to be a real campaign to ensure that South Lakeland residents were not continually affected by the bottle neck at the Castlefield corridor and sought reassurance that Northern Rail’s successors would maintain the amount of new trains which had been brought in. The Northern Rail representatives informed Members that they were committed to bringing in the new fleet of trains and that they aimed to have them in service by May 2020.
Members expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the passenger usage statistics had only just been made available to the Council. Further discussion on this matter raised a question relating to the continuation of two carriage trains when three carriage trains were expected and the lack of bicycle space on trains. Members were reminded that the statistics had been provided by the Department of Transport and informed that Northern Rail expected to see an improvement in the statistics in the most recent statistics. In addition, it was highlighted that Northern Rail trains had space for two bicycles and more bicycles were permitted at the discretion of the conductor.
Members were concerned that, although there had been an 8% increase in recent footfall for the use of trains. Overall, there had been a 15% decrease, which was not encouraging. Members sought reassurance on how Northern Rail intended to market its services to encourage customer confidence on the train service and reliability. The Northern Rail representatives reiterated their continued work with their partners on engineering work and community partnerships to promote the Furness, Windermere and Lakes Lines. Additionally, media and poster campaign were used to encourage travellers to visit Cumbria.
Members requested clarification of why advance notices of delays and cancellations were not being given to passengers, as well as clarification on what methods were being used to give advance notice to passengers. The Northern Rail representatives highlighted the difficulties in providing transportation in rural areas and explained what steps were taken to give advance notice, such as the use of social media, screens at stations and announcements on their website. They pointed out the difficulties in predicting delays, such as damage to overheads cables and breakdowns. In such cases, replacement buses were co-ordinated to organise connections and to take passengers to destinations. Members required reassurance on what plans Northern Rail had in place to address drivers’ absences and staff sickness at short notice. They were advised that Northern Rail had a robust sickness policy in place but had seen a 30% increase in absence due to sickness in the run up to Christmas. The Northern Rail rostering system included allowance for 40% efficiency to cover unforeseen eventualities and ongoing work had resulted in an increase in crew availability.
Members expressed their concerns with the difficulties faced by passengers in accessing Staveley Station. It was felt, that this had discouraged the use of the Station and some residents felt that the Lakes Line was not adequate with respect to the communications it published and giving notice for cancelled trains. Members were informed that planned engineering works were published on National Rail’s website, on social media and at stations.
Northern Rail’s representatives detailed the alternative arrangements in place, including replacement trains or buses. Members questioned Northern Rail on how the company could reassure the Council that everything was being done to resolve the lack of reliability in its services. Northern Rail’s representatives reiterated their ongoing work to introduce more new trains onto the Lakes and Furness lines, the use of three carriage trains, continued work to address crew availability, and improvements to stations and access. Members were also informed of Northern Rail’s continued work with local community groups and workshop sessions to consider how best to improve the company’s services within the District.
RESOLVED – That the update from representatives of Northern Rail be noted.