Louise Haigh has declared that rail services across the North of England are “in meltdown” and accused the government of having “forced the north to settle for a sub-standard service” amid ongoing disruption to services across the region.
Addressing the Commons during an urgent question on rail cancellations this morning, the Shadow Transport Secretary argued that rail services in the north are “once again in meltdown”, highlighting the disruption on TransPennine Express.
TransPennine Express confirmed on Wednesday that 25 services would be cancelled, with an additional 13 services being amended. Further short-notice cancellations and amendments to services are reportedly expected throughout the day.
Haigh told MPs: “People cut off from jobs and opportunities. Investors who I spoke to this morning in Manchester thinking twice about investing in the north. Businesses unable to recruit because their potential employees simply cannot rely on the train to get to work. The damage this fiasco is doing it enormous.”
The Labour frontbencher added: “If this were happening elsewhere in the country, the government would have taken far greater action by now. Instead, not just for weeks but for months and for years, they have forced the north to settle for a sub-standard service.
“Forced to accept delays, cancellations and overcrowding, while ministers not only allowed it, but they actually rewarded the abject failure of these operators.”
Responding on behalf of the government, Huw Merriman acknowledged that the disruption to rail services is “not acceptable” and is “having a significant effect on passengers and the northern economy”.
The rail minister said train-operating companies “must do more to deliver certainty of service to their passengers”, adding that the government “will fully hold them to account for things that are within their control”.
He told MPs: “We cannot continue like this, and that is why we have set in place a series of talks and negotiations aimed at changing working practices, which mean that train operators are not reliant on seeking the approval of workforce to run a seven-day operation.”
The government minister emphasised that change “can’t be unilaterally dealt with” and “requires the agreement of the unions to modernise”. He called on Labour to support the government in “pushing for those reforms”.
Members of the train drivers’ union ASLEF have taken part in five days of strikes in recent months in an ongoing dispute over pay, involving employees at companies across the country including TransPennine Express and Avanti West Coast.
Avanti was criticised in August for drastically reducing its timetable, with services between London and Manchester worst affected. The company cited “severe staff shortages” as the cause. It has consistently relied on employees working overtime to deliver its services.
The operator accused ASLEF of undertaking “unofficial” strike action earlier this year. “The truth is the company does not employ enough drivers to deliver the services it has promised,” a spokesperson for the union said at the time.
The Department for Transport confirmed in October that Avanti would continue to run its London to Glasgow route for at least a further six months, until April 2023. Haigh described the decision to extend the company’s contract as a “reward for abject failure” and a “slap in the face for passengers”.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) announced last week that its members would take part in a series of 48 hour strikes in December and January after negotiations with industry failed to reach an improved settlement.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch declared on Monday that Avanti is “one of the worst franchise holders in the industry”, claiming: “They lie about their own staff and blame them for problems that are the fault of senior management. Our members have to deal with passenger anger at such an appalling service.”
Lynch met with Transport Secretary Mark Harper last week for talks about the RMT’s ongoing dispute over pay and conditions. The union leader said the meeting was “positive” but added that strikes “will remain on” until the RMT gets a “tangible outcome”.
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