The boss of rail firm Northern has issued an apology to passengers, admitting services in the past few weeks have not been good enough and blamed the chaos on the North of England’s railways on the short notice the firm was given to implement new timetables.
David Brown, chief executive of Northern, told The Gazette the disruption seen on the railways was due to “circumstances outside of our control” and conceded that it would take some time to rebuild trust with its customers.
Mr Brown also said the whole railway industry needed to learn lessons from the debacle and that a “whole system” approach was needed to avoid similar disruption in the future.
The introduction of new timetables led to thousands of cancelled or delayed trains and Northern was forced to introduce an interim timetable with reduced service levels in order to keep the trains moving.
A total of 381 trains were cancelled from Blackpool North in just two weeks in May – with problems continuing into June.
The Gazette was one of 25 newspapers in the north to join forces to put pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to take action after the unprecedented problems across Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire.
Mr Brown said: “We are really sorry for the level of service that we have provided since the new timetable came in.
“It is not the sort of service that we want to operate but it has been caused by circumstances outside of our control.
“We are working hard to make the interim timetable work so we can fix it.”
The disruption has been due in Mr Brown’s view to the short notice it was given to introduce its new timetable, saying that as late as the evening before its introduction it was still finalising driver schedules.
“The first two weeks of the May timetable didn’t go very well at all and that was all down to the short notice,” he said.
“We are at the end of a planning process that normally takes nine or 10 months and actually we had to write the timetable in three to four months.
“Clearly there are a number of reviews in place but at the root cause of this is changes to the infrastructure that we thought we were going to have to plan the timetable around and then the need to rewrite that in really short order.
“That’s not a blame that it is just a fact.
“It has been incredibly challenging.
“When the infrastructure is delayed that gives you further training requirements, it means you have to rewrite the timetable and you don’t actually know the scale of consequences until the end of the process.”
The Northern boss said frontline staff with the company had taken flak from passengers and that he hoped that the network would become more stable going forward.
He said: “We know our front-facing staff at stations have born the brunt of people’s frustration and they have done an amazing job, but it has been very difficult for them to deal with that.
“But also behind the scenes the teams of people that do the planning and scheduling have been working incredible hours to try and get this right.
“Planning a timetable is not a quick fix it is a very complex thing.
“The whole company has been focused on trying to get this right, that’s why we put the interim timetable in place.”
Northern could also face hefty compensation claims from the delays, something he acknowledged.
Transport Minister Jo Johnson said on Monday passengers affected by delays and cancellations from the chaos on the railways will be entitled to compensation to the value of up to a month’s rail travel.
When asked if Northern had requested an extension to imposing the new timetable Mr Brown said: “I definitely know that I was flagging up that the timetable we were going to implement was not as good as the original on. We knew it would be difficult but that was hard to quantify until the last minute. It was a balance between crying wolf if you like and eventually having the evidence of the scale of the problem.”
He added: “The whole industry has to learn lessons. [You need a] whole system approach, not looking at infrastructure in isolation.”