The Transport Secretary has said he is “under no illusions” about the “real problem” blighting northern England’s railways, as regional leaders demanded he steps in to clear up the “mess” wreaking havoc for passengers.
Five metro mayors said talks with Mark Harper on Wednesday had been “positive”, but stressed they needed more than “warm words” to fix the disruption “causing misery for millions”.
Mr Harper also described the meeting as “constructive”, but stopped short of saying he would push for a rest day working agreement to ease staffing challenges in the short term – while insisting he was not “blocking” such an arrangement.
It comes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak condemned the “unacceptable deterioration” in northern rail services, criticising Avanti West Coast as he faced pressure over its performance from his own benches in the Commons.
Thousands of trains have been cancelled across the north of England at short notice in recent weeks, with TransPennine Express, Avanti and Northern all affected.
Mr Sunak agreed there had been an “unacceptable deterioration in the quality of Avanti’s service”.
“The Transport Secretary is rightly monitoring and holding them to account,” he said.
“There is a plan to increase the number of trains, to more than 100 additional drivers, and restoring the full direct service between Manchester and London.”
He added that the plan needs “trade union co-operation”.
Labour mayors from West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Manchester, Liverpool and North Tyneside have called for immediate action from the Government to improve the situation, claiming northerners have been “robbed” of their “basic right” to get to work and college on time.
In a joint statement following their talks with Mr Harper, the five regional leaders said: “The absolute bare minimum of levelling up means being able to get to work and college on time – but northerners have been robbed of this basic right because of the chaos on our railways. That must end.
Very constructive meeting with Northern Mayors today.
We all agree rail services in the region currently aren’t good enough. We're training more drivers & introducing more services but, to fully solve the problems, reform must be delivered and industrial disputes resolved. pic.twitter.com/BrXDdPMU4g
— Mark Harper (@Mark_J_Harper) November 30, 2022
“This was a positive meeting and we welcome the new Transport Secretary saying he will grip this crisis, which is causing misery for millions and damaging our regional economies.
“But the time for warm words is over. We’ve had enough of broken promises – passengers are rightly demanding action now.
“We made it clear to Mark Harper that he can and must step in and clean up this mess, which was made worse by his predecessors.”
Much of the chaos is being caused by rail workers no longer volunteering to do shifts on their rest days, amid an industrial relations crisis across the sector.
The Transport Secretary has been under pressure from business leaders in the region to give operators “the backing they need to negotiate a rest day working agreement” so they can more easily cover for sickness and get new drivers trained up.
Speaking to the PA news agency after Wednesday’s meeting, he suggested such an arrangement could be beneficial.
But he did not go so far as to say he would push for one, branding it a “short-term” solution.
“I made it very clear… a railway that depends on delivering a timetable, on people having to basically come in on their day off and good will isn’t a long-term solution,” he said.
Pressed on whether that meant he would not be pushing for a rest day working agreement, he said: “No, I do think… it could potentially make a difference in the short term. I’m certainly not blocking such an agreement.”
“First of all, the company would have to reach a rest day working agreement with the unions, but also the other piece is that drivers then actually have to agree to work on their rest day,” he said.
“And unless both things happen, you don’t actually deliver better services. And if the timetable is only able to be delivered based on good will and drivers working on their rest days, that isn’t really a recipe for a reliable service that passengers can count on.”
He stressed he had previously encouraged union leaders and rail operators to “hammer out” a deal for reform to free up money for a “better pay offer” for staff.
Mr Harper said he could empathise with people experiencing disruption on northern rail services, but conceded he does not travel in the region an “enormous amount” as his constituency is in the west of England.