A NATIONAL railway timetable change caused chaos across the North West in May. Now, the companies responsible for the trains have pledged to do better. Seamus McDonnell reports

FOLLOWING May’s mass timetable change, a third of Northern’s train services were delayed or cancelled.

The chaos hit Bolton’s commuters hard, with people who work in Manchester especially effected by the lack of transport and the difficulties in predicting which trains would run.

While the performance of these services has since improved — reaching around 87% of trains arriving on time in the past two weeks — bosses have apologised and pledged to do better.

At a meeting involving TransPennine Express and Network Rail officials, Liam Sumpter, regional director at Northern, called the quality of services through Bolton “unacceptable” and admitted there is still “a long way to go” to give passengers a good experience.

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Northern boss Liam Sumpter.

He said: “The May timetable introduction was really difficult for customers in Bolton and I want to say sorry to all of our passengers who experienced really challenging journeys over the past few months.

“But what I can say to you is, things are getting better, we have got a huge number of people working night and day to improve train performance. The train quality that we delivered in the immediate aftermath of May was around 67% of trains on time, that’s now up to 87% in the past few weeks.

“I’m hoping you’ve started to see some of those benefits. We know there’s a long way to go and that passengers in Bolton deserve a lot better and we’re working really hard to get to a position where you’ll think that our train services are where they need to be.”

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However, the reason for the problems after May 18, come down to wider issues than the actions of Northern’s staff.

Network Rail — the government arms-length body which manages railway infrastructure — is currently completing a large-scale improvement scheme involving the electrification of railway lines in the North West.

This programme would give train companies the ability to run electrical trains but, while it is being completely, certain sections of line have had to close to allow for engineers to work.

The electrification scheme has already been delayed for around two years, but it was hit with further delays this year, meaning the planned timetable change for May had to be changed at the last minute.

According to Mr Sumpter, that left companies with just 16 weeks to complete a plan which should have been done in around 40 weeks.

Network Rail bosses have put this down largely to unexpectedly poor ground conditions, as well as the collapse of Carillion earlier in the year, the construction firm which was charged with completing a lot of the work.

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In addition to the disruption caused to the planning of a new timetable, the delays to electrification have had a specific impact on Bolton, where no trains have been run on weekends for several months and all services were cancelled for a nine day stretch in the middle of August, to allow for more work to be completed.

Anna-Jane Hunter, rail director for the North at Network Rail, said: “We’re really aware that customers on the Bolton line have had a really awful time of it in the past few years in terms of their rail service, I’m pleased to say it’s getting better now.

“Electrification is going to be complete in the next few months and early in 2019 you’re going to have some really nice new trains to look forward to and a much better journey experience and I hope you’ll appreciate all the work that’s been done and thank you for bearing with us.”

The electrification scheme, part of the government’s Great North Rail Project, is expected to be completed in Bolton by early November.

To add a further layer to the process, Northern’s trains are heavily reliant on trains run by different operators arriving on time.

When one service is late it can mean other trains have to be run at different times to avoid disruption for a larger number of people.

Mr Sumpter explained: “It’s resilience that’s been a real challenge since May when it works it works but when the slightest thing goes wrong there’s some fragility in the system.”

The decision of which train to delay or cancel is made in Manchester at the Network Rail Railway Operating Centre (ROC) a huge earthquake-proof building that can accommodate 200 people and is responsible for the management of around 4,500 trains every day.

Paul Owen, who manages the centre, explained the process. “The train controllers decide why any one train would be cancelled or delayed.

“The decision is made jointly by Network Rail, Northern and TransPennine Express. It’s about the least disruption to the least number of passengers.”

While, Northern’s performance has improved in recent weeks it is still some way away from the period between August and September last year, when 91% of trains arrived on time.

After the problems in May, the company introduced an interim schedule for its trains which reduced the number of services by 25%, with a phased reintroduction planned for this month.

In December, a new timetable will be brought in for trains across the country and Mr Sumpter is confident that the next schedule will improve things for passengers.

However, it will not be until the planned change in May, 2019, that services are expected to be back to the level promised earlier this year.