Overcrowding on trains around Leeds is reaching a “critical point”, and more pressure needs to be put on rail operators to bring in new trains, a meeting heard this week.
Leader of Leeds City Council Judith Blake made the claims in a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) meeting, adding that despite recent improvements to services, they were still “nowhere near” up to standard.
She was backed by the leader of the Leeds Liberal Democrats group Coun Stewart Golton, who added that more needed to be done to remove the much-maligned “pacer” trains from the region’s rail network.
It follows publication of the Blake Jones rail review, co authored by Coun Blake, which made recommendations on how the rail industry in the North of England can run more efficiently, following the rail timetable fiasco of May 2018.
Coun Blake told the meeting: “The importance of this work is that it will lead to changes which mean that the disastrous impact the implementation of the timetable changes in May 2018 can’t happen again.
“We are already seeing changes in the way rail operators report their performance data. Up until our involvement, they were just reporting trains arriving on time and cancellations, now they are including the impact of the number of carriages on the train.
“This includes the impact that has on overcrowding, which is reaching a critical point around Leeds.
“Also around the number of passengers who are left behind on platforms because they can’t physically get onto the trains. We are putting [the companies] under increasing pressure to introduce the technology to make sure there is an accurate reporting around this.
“With all of the changes that have been brought forward, performance is still nowhere near where it needs to be.”
She added there was “dysfunction” across the rail industry, and that Network Rail had to take its share of the blame for the timetable problems in 2018, in which thousands of services across the north to be delayed or cancelled.
She added: “Franchises had been let across the rail network with huge assumptions being made about Network Rail’s ability to bring in the infrastructure improvements that are needed.
“The failure of that to have been delivered is one of the main contributors to the failure of the timetables, particularly around the Greater Manchester area.”
One such issue facing the region’s rail networks is operator Northern’s continuing use of old trains, known as “pacers”, which are yet to be replaced with new models as promised.
Coun Golton said: “I have a live issue with overcrowding on our system and the ability to overcome it by delivering new rolling stock – getting rid of those pacers.
“It’s one of the questions we have asked of Northern repeatedly in meetings – we asked for a timetable for the introduction of new rolling stock on all of the routes that they were responsible for in our region.
“They have not done so, twice. They admitted that they have that information, but they are unwilling to release it.
“It is up to us to know whether they are falling behind in the delivery of it. It is up to the passengers to know when they can be expecting the new rolling stock delivered at their rail stations.
“For them to turn round and say ‘we have got the information, but you’re not having it’ is not acceptable. It certainly is not in the spirit of the recommendations Coun Blake has agreed here.”
Leader of Bradford Council and chair of WYCA Coun Susan Hinchcliffe referred to a meeting with a representative of Northern earlier this year.
She said: “I remember sitting in this room with Northern Rail. We pressed them, asking ‘are you going to get rid of pacers by the end of this year?’ – and I remember the exact wording they used in response: ‘we have a robust plan to eliminate pacers by the end of this year’.
“We heard that, and we understood what it meant, which was that wasn’t a wholehearted guarantee.
“That shows we were right to press and we were right to be angry at the time that we weren’t getting sufficient assurances, and we now realise that was not the case – that robust plan was not robust enough and we are going to be left with some pacers in the region.
“That is appalling.”
The much-criticised pacer trains date back to the 1980s, and are made up of a modified bus body and four-wheeled wagon frames.
Northern had originally wanted to replace pacers by the end of 2018, but the Guardian newspaper reported in December 2018 that none had yet been taken out of service.