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‘No light at the end of the tunnel’ – Sheffield rail users react to report on summer’s ‘timetable meltdown’

Railway users in Sheffield are not convinced enough is being done to fix the problems which caused chaos on the lines earlier this year.

New timetables introduced in May caused weeks of misery for Northern passengers, with up to 310 scheduled trains cancelled by the operator each weekday, as well as those using Thameslink services.

Northern Rail has apologised to customers for the disruption and says punctuality is improving

Northern Rail has apologised to customers for the disruption and says punctuality is improving

A report on the debacle, published today by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), concludes it happened because the fragmented industry set-up does ‘not support clarity of decision making’ and ultimately ‘nobody took charge’.

READ MORE: Sheffield still waiting for cash promised by Government for improved rail links to Manchester

Network Rail, the operators and even the regulator itself were all found to be partly culpable for the fiasco, which in the north stemmed from over-running rail electrification work.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling responded by launching what he claimed would be the biggest review of Britain's railways since privatisation, headed by former British Airways supremo Keith Williams.

Peter Kennan, chairman of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce & Industry's transport forum, said parts of the rail network were no longer able to cope following a rapid expansion in services

Peter Kennan, chairman of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce & Industry's transport forum, said parts of the rail network were no longer able to cope following a rapid expansion in services

He said this would look at ‘bringing train and track closer together’ to reduce disruption and improve accountability, with the possibility of ‘regional partnerships’ being created to deliver smoother services and better value for money.

READ MORE: Anger and frustration at reliability of Sheffield rail services to London and Manchester

As part of the review, plans to award a new Cross Country franchise next year, covering trains from Sheffield to Edinburgh and Newcastle in the North and Plymouth and Southampton in the south, have been put on hold.

Rail passenger journeys across Britain have more than doubled over the last two decades, from 735 million in 1994-5 to 1.73 billion in 2016-17.

Chris Morgan, chairman of the Friends of Dore & Totley Station

Chris Morgan, chairman of the Friends of Dore & Totley Station

Peter Kennan, who chairs Sheffield Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s transport forum, said this rapid expansion meant the network could ‘no longer realistically cope, in parts, with what it is being asked to do’, resulting in this summer’s ‘timetable meltdown’.

READ MORE: Transport masterplan could see new tram stops, train stations and rapid bus services across South Yorkshire

“So far as Sheffield is concerned, we have suffered a ripple effect resulting from delays elsewhere on the network, particularly in Manchester,” he added.

He called the Cross Country postponement ‘very frustrating’, especially for commuters from Sheffield to Leeds, who he said would have to ‘endure’ the existing service ‘without any immediate light at the end of the tunnel’.

Kath Aspinwall, who chairs the Hope Valley Railway Users Group, said: “The thing that strikes me from the report is how fragmented everything is, and how nobody’s in charge.

“I think that encourages the different parts to blame each other rather than accepting they might be part of the fault. If nobody’s in charge, it’s no surprise things go wrong.”

Referring to the summer's disruption, Chris Morgan, chairman of Friends of Dore & Totley Station, said the rail industry ‘saw the headlights approaching but didn’t know how to get out of the way’.

He claimed the big problem was that improvements to rail infrastructure had failed to keep pace with the extra services being added, meaning even a small problem could have huge knock-on effects for the wider network.

“Generally speaking, I think passengers are resigned to the fact that while we’re getting improvements they’re not being made quickly enough,” he said.

Northern said it was ‘deeply sorry’ for this summer’s disruption and while punctuality had improved, with 87 per cent of services arriving on time in the first two weeks of September, it wanted to learn the lessons from what had happened.

Network Rail’s chief executive Andrew Haines, who also apologised, said: “A whole system approach to timetable planning must be the way ahead and we have already started on that path with the new winter timetable due in December that will see some modest improvements.”

Transport for the North’s chief executive Barry White said the ORR’s report highlighted the need for ‘radical change’ in the way the rail industry operates’.

He described the appointment of Richard George to improve coordination across the industry, and the compensation packages for beleaguered passengers, as the first steps on a long journey of rail reform’.

The ORR’s report is available to read in full here.