Mayors will only accept ‘substandard’ rail timetable changes if long-term upgrades are forthcoming

Reporter: Niall Griffiths, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 08 August 2021

Northern mayors have warned the government that they will only accept reduced train services through Greater Manchester if long-awaited rail infrastructure upgrades are delivered.

A new timetable has been proposed by the Department for Transport (DfT) with the aim of easing significant congestion in and around Manchester from December 2022.

Bottlenecks on the Castlefield Corridor have long caused disruption on the wider rail network, a problem made worse by the disastrous introduction of a new timetable in 2018.

Calls have long been made for more routes into Manchester Piccadilly, upgrades to the city’s Oxford Road station and new signalling to ease the blockages.

Instead, the DfT is proposing to axe Sheffield’s direct link to Manchester Airport while stopping Manchester-bound services from Wigan at Oxford Road instead of Piccadilly. 

The plan was slammed by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and other leaders at a meeting of Transport for the North’s (TfN) rail committee.

Mr Burnham said: “Over four years after the chaos of May 2018, the north of England would have to have imposed a substandard timetable with no date as to when [infrastructure problems] which caused the chaos in the first place are going to be fixed.

“That is a very poor place for us to find ourselves after everything that we’ve been through, and it suggests to me that the rail industry’s focus is still not on the north of England, and it needs to be otherwise there will be a continued challenge from this group.”

TfN, the body which oversees rail infrastructure in the north, has now written to the DfT saying they will only ‘reluctantly’ agree to the timetable if certain conditions are met.

Firstly they have asked for the delayed Integrated Rail Plan, which sets out major projects such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, to be published imminently.

Another demand is for investment in upgrading Manchester’s rail network to begin earlier than planned, and for schemes to match TfN’s commitments for new connections including services from Bradford and the Calder Valley to Piccadilly and Manchester Airport.

Leaders also want a firm commitment to reinstate the direct rail links between South Yorkshire and Manchester if they are removed next year.

Dan Jarvis, mayor of the Sheffield city region, said: “Losing the direct rail link between South Yorkshire and Manchester Airport is a retrograde step that would leave Sheffield one of the only cities in the world without a direct train to a major international airport.

“Being asked to approve this timetable change with no context, no plan and no information about when it will be reinstated is unacceptable.”

The Manchester Recovery Taskforce, established by the government in the aftermath of the 2018 timetable debacle, consulted on three short-term proposals to address congestion along the Castlefield Corridor earlier this year.

Following the consultation an alternative plan dubbed ‘Option B+’ – the one discussed by TfN’s rail committee this week – was put forward which officials said would deliver ‘significant passenger benefits’.

A report to the TFN suggested that a regular commuter into Manchester ‘would be expected to suffer an hour less delay each month compared with the performance offered by the December 2019 timetable’.

But in the letter to rail ministers, TfN’s interim chief executive Tim Wood said: “The fundamental issue here is that the North is being asked to cut back its rail services at the exact moment the country is being asked to support economic recovery without any clear picture of when the required infrastructure to do this will be in place.”

A spokesperson for the DfT said: “We’ve been listening to people and have consulted widely on proposals to deliver improvements for rail passengers in Manchester and across the North West.

“We look forward to working with Northern leaders on both the current proposals to relieve the traffic jam of trains through the centre of Manchester, and on a longer-term plan for services and infrastructure.”

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