My constituents deserve better
Dear Sir, — Northern has been a feature of my inbox for some time now and it may not surprise you that the correspondence I have received regarding the train operator has not been positive, to say the least.
There has been a catalogue of issues with Northern, particularly since May 2018, which the people of my constituency have raised with me.
It is therefore no surprise to me that we are now talking about stripping Arriva of this franchise, which has seen such poor levels of service, impacting the people of my constituency particularly badly.
I first want to mention the range of issues that constituents have raised with me, particularly since May 2018 when the timetabling fiasco began.
In changing the timetable, one of Congleton’s peak time service was cancelled — the 7.32am train — leaving just the 0712 and the 0812.
This caused disruption to people getting to work and particularly affected children getting to school on time in Macclesfield.
In the evening, the rush hour trains leaving Manchester have not been frequent enough — meaning the trains were often very full, leaving people standing.
Trains on Sundays have also not been frequent enough — with only six trains per day through Congleton station on a Sunday, leading to a wait of up to four hours, when minimum service level commitment should be 15 services in each direction.
The lack of late-night services from Manchester to Congleton is also an issue for my constituents. Manchester is famous for the many venues for sports and entertainment, the lack of late train services has meant that residents could either not go to events, or had to drive.
Congleton has also suffered not just from timetables changes, but also from a very large number of cancellations, some of which were caused by strikes.
For months there was no Saturday services for Congleton whatsoever.
To make matters worse, there was no rail replacement service at Congleton on any of the strike days. Efforts were made for other areas to ensure the continuation of service in the event of strikes, but not Congleton.
Cancellations have not just happened on strike days, and have led to people having to drive to other towns to pick up or drop off their family or friends, causing people great inconvenience.
This disruption has not only impacted passengers, but also led to a reduction in footfall in the area around the station. This has had a marked impact on the local businesses near the station and is impacting their ability to survive.
Parking charges were introduced to Congleton Station’s car park, which has both increased the effective cost of travel by train and led to unacceptable inconvenience for residents who live near the station.
Since the introduction of charges, residents have reported severe problems on nearby streets where people are now parking — sometimes for days.
Other stations that are maintained by Northern have complained that the machines are slow and that if there is a queue, it can lead to people missing trains.
Pricing has also been an issue for the people of Congleton when using Northern. Despite being closer to Manchester — and on the same line — as Stoke-on-Trent, train tickets to Manchester can be cheaper than from Congleton, because advanced tickets are not available from Congleton.
While not acknowledged, this is clearly because Northern does not face competition in Congleton and does in Stoke-on-Trent. Residents have also raised issues with season tickets for part time workers and the lack of a combined tram and train tickets.
The service level of Northern has been terrible across the region, but there has been a feeling that Congleton has been forgotten.
The absence of rail replacement services, the prioritisation of the rest of the network when short staffed — often you could still get to Macclesfield from Manchester, but not Congleton, the general reduction in service and higher ticket prices for Congleton compared to other areas.
The experience of the last few years has put people in my constituency off travelling by train, just when we most need to increase train travel.
If we are to tackle the climate crisis, we need to have confidence in our trains. People need to be able to get to work, they need to know their children can get to school, they need to know that they can get home. At a basic level, if the train isn’t running — a replacement needs to be provided.
While some improvements have been made since the very worst of the timetabling fiasco, the service is still not good enough. Since May 2018 I have written to and met with representatives of Northern a number of times.
I have written to the secretary of state and raised questions in the House. I have organised a “meet the managers” event for constituents to directly address representatives from Northern. Action has simply been too slow.
I am happy to see the Government taking action on this matter — it is right to do so — the franchise run by Arriva has simply not been good enough.
Lessons must be learned. Sole blame cannot be laid with Arriva. I have already mentioned the impact of the strikes — which I acknowledge Northern should have worked to resolve earlier — but there have also been problems with improvements by Network Rail that impacted Northern.
That does not excuse how the franchise has been run, but there must be much better joined-up decision making between Network Rail and rail operating companies. The franchise system clearly needs reform and this must take place before the franchise for the services operated by Northern are put out for tender.
The people of my constituency have had enough and deserve better. — Yours faithfully,
FIONA BRUCE MP