Northern Rail confesses to Manchester route problems

By Joshua Powling

Hard-working families are seeing their income squeezed, and are already paying more and more to get to work on public transport, but are they getting value for money?

Despite Sir Roy McNulty saying that standards are generally improving on the railways, the trains running on the Northern Rail operated Manchester Piccadilly-Chester line remain mired in the 1980s.

The former Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority was commissioned by the last Labour government in November 2009 to write a report on the railways, and ‘Rail Value for Money,’ was published last month.

It must seem obvious to commuters what is needed as they make their way to work from rural Cheshire villages into Manchester every morning. Money needs to be spent.

BLOOD ON THE TRACKS: The smeared blood stains may have attracted passenger attention, but not that of the cleaners

A Mancunian Matters investigation of the trains on the Manchester-Chester route has revealed bare wiring, loose heating grates, and layers of dirt under seating benches.

Northern’s shortcomings hardly compare to the recent outburst of Legionella on Scottish train toilets a fortnight ago, but the revelations do raise questions about what Train Operating Companies are and are not doing.

The company has apologised to customers, but the comments made by Stuart Draper, Engineering Director for Northern Rail, suggest that the onus is on the Department for Transport to stump up the cash for train improvements.

He said: “The fleet we inherited includes some of the oldest trains on the rail network, with a number of units now over 25 years old, however they undergo the same rigorous safety checks as other fleets.

“Our franchise was let as a ‘steady-state’ meaning we were expected to carry the same number of passengers on the same trains with no investment for new rolling stock for the life of the franchise.”

The problem with the government awarding short-term rail franchises is that the terms of conditions do not require companies to purchase or lease new trains.

BROKEN: A heating grate hangs off making for uncomfortable seating

Northern Rail is owned by Serco-Abellio and it will run the franchise until its expiration in September 2013.

David Sidebottom, director of Passenger Focus, the non-government rail passenger watchdog, demanded future changes on the line.

He said: “The  government has announced that it will buying about 2,000 new carriages in the next eight years, so it is essential that passengers  travelling on Northern Rail, which has some of the country’s oldest rolling stock , see some of the benefits of this investment.”

Either the provisions for cleaning Northern’s trains are inadequate or they are not being followed, something they denied. One reporter found accumulated dirt under seats, and even blood smeared on the roof of one train carriage.

“All our trains visit depots for regular cleaning and maintenance and we also have onboard teams that operate across the network throughout the day,” Mr Draper said.

“We apologise to those customers who have expressed concern to Mancunian Matters about the cleanliness of trains on the Manchester – Chester route.” 

WHAT LIES BENEATH: The view underneath one of the seats

He chalked the open heating grates to vandalism, and apologised to passengers who had to endure journeys throughout the winter in close to freezing temperatures.

“It was extremely cold last winter and the heaters struggle to cope with such adverse temperatures. We are currently looking at ways to improve this system,” he explained.

An Office for Rail Regulation spokesman said: “ORR health and safety inspectors will always take action to ensure the railways are safe for passengers, and we have requested further details on the specific complaints regarding electrical problems, heater boxes being left open and rusty electrical points.”

This does not suggest that the body, which is in charge of regulating the safety of Great Britain’s railway network, is taking a more than active role in exposing the shortcomings listed above.

In fact the entire system seems to remove all accountability from the Department for Transport, with a heavy burden laid at the door of the ORR, Network Rail and Passenger Focus.

The Department for Transport was unavailable for comment.

In a statement to the House of Commons accompanying the presentation of the McNulty Report, Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond focused on the need for efficiency savings.

He said: “The train operators, Network Rail, Rolling Stock Companies, Unions and Government – none of them can avoid playing their part if we are to deliver a sustainable and affordable railway for the future.”

Meanwhile Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood and Shadow Secretary for Transport, feels that commuters are not getting any added benefits from constant fare increases.

DON’T LOOK NOW: Some corners haven’t seen a clean for a while

She said: “Fares are already going up by RPI plus three, and flexibility in fares could see rises of 30% over the next three years. It’s a license for companies to fiddle fare increases.”

She expressed her concern that efficiency savings would threaten women and disabled people the most, because they relied on the on-board staff the most.

Ms Eagle said: “I think the biggest omission in the McNulty Report is the fact that these proposals could lead to the fragmentation of the railway system.”

She also noted that the majority of routes in the north are overcrowded and neglected, and that the primary focus of government has been on more glamorous projects such as Crossrail.

“I’d like to see more capital investment in the North’s rail structure, especially the Northern Hub, which would create space for 3.5 million more passengers, and would cost hundreds of millions, not billions of pounds,” she added.


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