A summer of rail chaos has been blamed for a sharp drop in day trippers coming to Blackpool during the busiest months of the season.
The number of adult visitors to the resort between May and August fell by 400,000 compared to last year – at a potential cost of around £30m to the local economy.
Tourism chiefs said months of disruption to train services – including a the botched introduction of a new timetable in May and a series of ill-timed strikes – had contributed to a disappointing summer.
But while the number of people arriving in the resort by rail fell over the period, particularly in June at the height of the timetable problems, the figures account for less than 10 per cent of the overall decline in visitors.
Coun Gillian Campbell, deputy leader of Blackpool Council, said: “Blackpool and its tourism industry bore the brunt of the cancellations and delays after the new Northern timetables came into effect in May.
“It is hard not to conclude this has had a significant negative impact on the resort’s day tripper marker.”
Figures from the Omnibus survey, a national household survey with a sample size of more than 4,000 respondents, show the total number of adult visits between May and August fell from 3.2m in 2017 to 2.8m in 2018.
Overnight stays accounted for 1.5m visits, the same as previous year, but day visits fell from 1.7m to 1.3m.
A new rail timetable, introduced on May 20, plunged Northern services into chaos.
Hundreds of services were cancelled and others severely delayed over the following weeks, with passengers left furious by the handling of the changes.
In June, 97,332 people arrived in Blackpool by train, a 14 per cent fall compared to the same month in 2017 when passenger numbers were already suffering from the effects of electrification work on the line.
From April to May this year, a total of 474,986 inbound rail passenger arrived in the resort – 32,640 fewer than in 2017 and a drop of 69,609 compared to 2016.
Blackpool Council said the impact of other factors that may have contributed to falling visitor numbers was harder to quantify. The weather and the World Cup, for example, could have influenced numbers.
Meanwhile long-running roadworks in the town centre have been criticised by traders for reducing footfall at key times of year.
However, the number of motorists using Blackpool’s car parks between May and August rose from 419,770 in 2017 to 428,184, the council revealed.
In just two weeks between May 17 and 31 a total of 381 trains from Blackpool North were cancelled, 199 part-cancelled and 15 ran with reduced carriages.
To mitigate damage to Blackpool’s visitor market, Northern sponsored the annual two-day air show but then cancelled some of its own services on the Sunday.
The rail operator also contributed additional funds to pay for an additional fireworks event in October.
Coun Campbell added: “We are grateful for the destination marketing support from Northern, but the impact of that will likely have been diluted by further disruption to our services during September and October.
“The focus for the rail operators must be to reach a level of reliability so visitors can rebuild their trust in train services as a means of getting to and from the resort.”
Last month, the Office of Rail and Road opened an investigation of Northern’s handling of the rail crisis, questioning whether it had done enough to keep passengers informed about delays.
What about other venues?
Kate Shane, head of the Merlin cluster of attractions including the Tower, said: “We have ended the season on a par with
“We had some upsides but did struggle at the start of season and we attribute some of that to disruption in the rail service.
“It has all added to halting what was a growth trajectory and it is disappointing to have been let down by the rail industry.
“The message which went out to our market was that people couldn’t get here.”
A spokesman for Blackpool Pleasure Beach said: “There is no doubt that the rail disruption Blackpool has experienced this season has contributed to the decline in day visitors arriving in Blackpool by train.
“We appreciate the rail disruption has been very frustrating to visitors wanting to travel to Blackpool by rail and in a year where there has been so much investment in new attractions in Blackpool this has been very disappointing.
“We look forward to building on the success of (new rollercoaster) Icon’s launch in 2018 and guests experiencing a much improved rail service in Blackpool in 2019.”
However, Blackpool Zoo said it had not been affected by the drop in day trippers heading to the resort and reported a 15 per cent upturn in visitors this summer.
PR and marketing manager Della Belk said: “The weather was also glorious and we launched a new television advertisement in time for the summer holidays.
“The vast majority of our visitors travel by car, or take the bus from the centre if they are staying here on holiday, so the rail disruption didn’t have a direct negative affect on our numbers.”
How does this summer compare?
Although the 2018 visitor numbers fell short of 2017, they are ahead of the same period in 2016.
According to the annual Omnibus survey, the main motivations for visiting the resort were the coastal location (22 per cent) and the Pleasure Beach (22 per cent), which this year opened its new £16m Icon rollercoaster.
In recent years Blackpool has seen its visitors numbers increase, up to 8.35m adult visits last year compared 7.8m in 2016. The annual STEAM survey, which counts children as well, shows an annual total of 18m visitors in 2017, around the same as 2016.
There was a two per cent growth in economic impact meaning the visitor economy was worth £1.5bn.
The figures will be presented to the council’s tourism, economy and resources committee when it meets on Wednesday November 14.
How much has it cost us?
Based on previous assessments of the number of visitors to Blackpool – and their value to the local economy – from recent STEAM surveys, each visit is worth just under £80.
That would put the cost of losing 400,000 visits this summer at around £31.9m.
Coun Campbell added: “After the long-awaited completion of electrification works and the introduction of new direct services to Blackpool, this summer should have seen an upsurge in inbound rail travel.
“Instead our passenger numbers have gone backwards.
“Although the fall in day trips is a small percentage of our overall visitor market and our overall visitor numbers are still higher than 2016, it is disappointing given the level of investment in new attractions this year.
“Clearly as the summer progressed many potential visitors lost all faith in the rail services as a means of getting here.
“Fortunately, the level of overnight stays has remained strong and that is illustrated by the success of the Resort Pass which has achieved record sales this year.”
Rail operator Northern, which has previously apologised for its part in the problems that affected passengers this summer, was approached for comment but did not respond.