Agenda item

Operator Presentation - Northern Rail Update

Chris Jackson, Regional Director for Northern Railways to provide a presentation to the Committee.



            Chris Jackson, Regional Director for Northern Trains gave a presentation to the Committee. He confirmed that his remit included looking after train drivers, conductors, station colleagues and also the stakeholder relationship. It was a team of around 2,500 people.


            He explained that Northern Trains Limited had come into existence on 1 March 2020. The previous franchise was Arriva Rail North and that had been removed by the Secretary of State. The ownership model was quite unusual as Northern Rail was 100% owned by Directly Operated Holdings Limited (DOHL) who were in turn 100% owned by the Department for Transport and therefore essentially Northern Trains were government controlled. He noted that there were two other train operating companies with a similar ownership model - London North-Eastern Railway and also South-Eastern. Northern Trains were widely regarded as being the most complicated train operator in the country. It was a big employer in the North with really well paid and stable jobs. There were over 7,000 people in the business and of course in the City Region Northern Trains were big employers as well. For example, there was a big train crew depot for drivers and conductors at Liverpool, Liverpool Lime Street station and outstations and the flagship maintenance depot at Allerton which maintained the electric fleet as well. He stressed the fact that only 30% of the Northern network was electrified.


            Chris Jackson presented a graph which showed the number of drivers that had been off with Covid from the start of the pandemic until last week. It showed an extremely fluctuating picture, but the graph did not demonstrate that Northern Trains were still experiencing, both directly and indirectly, the impact of Covid on operations and in particular at the Liverpool Depot which was seeing higher than the national average and the company average in terms of absence. Significant numbers of long Covid cases and people waiting some considerable amount of time for operations were being seen and consequently that was having an impact on staff availability and the level of service which could be offered. In more recent weeks the national shortage of occupational health practitioners was also having an impact on colleagues returning to work.


            The next slide set out the level of service that had been operating at different phases throughout the pandemic. The industry was used to two timetable changes per year, one in May and the other in December. But there had been a phenomenal amount of change over the last couple of years and he was proud of the relationships that had been built with union colleagues throughout that period which had allowed us to be that flexible. He confirmed that the timetable that was operating today would continue until May 2022. The timetable from May to December 2022 was currently being finalised and he would communicate that in due course.


            The customer demand recovery was still way below pre-pandemic passenger journeys. Currently within Northern over the last couple of days around 74%, or three quarters, of the pre-pandemic journeys had taken place and that had created a big revenue black hole for Northern Trains and for the industry as a whole. Big shifts were also being seen in how passengers travelled and that was reflective of how society had changed. For example, the traditional really busy periods in the am and pm peak period were not being seen. Instead the busiest days now seemed to be on a Wednesday, which showed people were adapting to two or three days in the office, but also on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. That was creating a big challenge for the industry because all of the engineering works had traditionally taken place over the weekend and bank holidays weekends but that was the new time when people wanted to travel most and therefore it would be necessary to adapt to that and move forward in that regard.


            He stated that Northern Trains were working really hard to win customers back with campaigns such as Sell a Million Seats at £1 for adults and 50p for children which had been well received, cheaper advanced purchase fares that were being offered particularly in and out of Liverpool to stimulate growth. Northern Trains had been working hard in the background around flexible tickets and also readying itself for smart tickets which was the way of the future. An extra £10m had been invested in cleaning as customers had wanted reassurance that trains were clean. Northern Trains had also partnered with agencies such as Jobcentre Plus to offer discounted or free travel for those who were attending job interviews.


            During the period of the pandemic a lot of work had been going on and Chris Jackson confirmed that all of the old ‘Pacer’ trains had been retired. All of the 101 brand new trains were in operation and he was pleased to see that Liverpool had received its fair share of that new traction. Also all of the legacy trains, trains that had been in operation for a number of years, had all been fully refurbished which included a universal toilet to assist with accessibility and improved customer information systems. Northern Trains was also 52% complete in its Digital Trains Programme to ensure that the legacy fleet was equipped with wi-fi and power sockets. Eight new bi-mode trains had also been introduced which ran half on diesel and half on electric and was currently operating between Southport and Manchester Stalybridge and Alderley Edge. All of the bi-mode trains were maintained at Allerton.


            Further customer improvements had been put in place. £2.5m had been invested in improving stations. A lot of work had also taken place in respect of the car parking offer and to make the stations more accessible, such as the introduction of a scooter permit scheme. There were now 157 Amazon lockers at Northern stations and upgraded CCTV had been installed at many stations.


            In respect of partnership working he was particularly proud of the partnership with Merseytravel and felt that they had a good working relationship, but it was also challenging for the right reasons. A lot of projects had been delivered or were due to be delivered such as:


·         Prescott Station – new lifts, refurbished ticket office, new toilet facilities, enhanced lighting and signage, drop off area

·         Joint bids to DfT’s Access for All Fund for April deadline – Earlestown, Hough Green, Edge Hill and Meols Cop

·         Upgrades to train interiors – moquette seat covers

·         Defibrillators approved for installation at St. Helens Central, Earlestown, Newton-le-Willows, Hough Green, St Helens Junction, Garswood, Prescott, Rainhill, Eccleston Park, Roby, Huyton, Edge Hill

·         Station painting at Meols Cop and waiting room improvements at Garswood

·         Station 2D maps on Google Earth to help with accessibility

·         Body worn cameras for staff

·         Pigeon mitigation plans for Wavertree

·         Close working with community groups for station adoption

·         Partnership on Lea Green and Headbolt Lane developments


            Chris Jackson highlighted some of the industry challenges and opportunities. The industry was facing unprecedented financial challenges. £16bn of additional funding from the Treasury had gone into the industry since the start of the pandemic but that would not be sustainable, and the industry would need to embark on some level of reform. The pandemic had shifted digitalisation significantly, 59% of all ticket purchases were now on mobile or digital. Less than 1 in 4 interactions happened at the ticket office so there had been a fundamental shift in how people were buying tickets. There was an opportunity here because ticketing was vastly complicated and there was a strong desire to achieve smart ticketing which would be included in the Business Plan. There was also a great opportunity as an industry and operator to sell the green credentials of travel, but it would be a challenge to do that as a large number of diesel trains in operation were 30-37 years old. At the back end of this decade it would be necessary to make some big decisions around the fleet and rolling stock. As had been mentioned previously only 30% of network was electrified a decision would need to be made about electrification and alternative technologies like battery and others in order to hit the net zero target. He thought that diversity was a strong focus Northern Trains and also for Great British Railways and it would be necessary to ensure that people working in Northern Trains were more reflective of the communities it served. Northern Trains had started to make some great strides in that regard but there was more to do.


            Chris Jackson also referred to the community rail network and he asked for support from the Committee on this issue. Community rail was a key part of the modern railway as it delivered so much for customers and community groups who volunteered but Merseyside had always had a low take up of community volunteers and whilst there were excellent examples of community links there was a great opportunity to do more as station adoption levels in Merseyside were much lower than anywhere else on the network. Northern Trains invested over £1m a year in community rail and it was a great opportunity to get involved in order to improve local stations.


            In respect of the December 2022 timetable he stated that the May 2018 timetable change had been a disaster for the industry and for the North-West in particular, but the industry had learnt from it and had come together with a proposal for December 2022 which was now publicly available for consultation on the website.  He confirmed that he would be happy to come back to a future meeting to discuss what the 2022 timetable would look like in its final version. This was a golden opportunity to deliver a timetable that had good capacity, was reliable and resilient. He summarised that the industry did have a number of challenges and it needed to win customers back. There was a massive cost challenge but there were a lot of things ongoing that would deliver improvements for the customer, and he was excited about what the future would bring and the partnership working with the City Region in achieving that.


            Councillor Ken McGlashan referred to the integration of buses, trains, timetables and ticketing. He asked whether Northern Trains could commit to bring that into fruition as he felt that integration needed to work seamlessly for everybody?


            Chris Jackson responded that in terms of integrated transport, ticketing and timetables there was a commitment to work with the Combined Authority on that. One of the graphs in the presentation had set out just how much the timetable had changed and that made it difficult to plan for integration as the railway was much more complicated to plan around than it was from a bus perspective. He did however see a period of stability coming forward which would enable planning in a much more integrated fashion from a timetable point of view particularly from May and December 2022. There was a team in Northern Trains who looked specifically at accessibility and integration, and he would make sure that they worked with the Combined Authority on that issue. Northern Trains were big advocates of smart ticketing as that was what customers wanted as they did not want to keep chopping and changing tickets between modes. The Business Plan which was currently awaiting sign off included strong plans around smart and integrated ticketing and how that could come to fruition. Northern Trains had got a firm seat at the table with the various ticketing steering groups that Liverpool City Region Combined Authority sat upon and therefore he was confident that the right people were talking but he would be happy to take on board any further ideas offline.


            Councillor Gordon Friel asked what plans were in place to protect revenue? He had concerns about the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan and he asked what views Chris Jackson had around that and whether he had concerns in economic terms as to how he would operate in the future in respect of inflation prices for fuel and wages.


            Chris Jackson responded that the ticketless travel rate was 8% last year and this year it was 6%. There was a small minority of people who did not want to pay for a ticket, but he was proud that the approach to ticketing and penalty fares was applied fairly and that had been judged in various correspondences that had taken place. Northern Trains did take it very seriously and there had been a campaign called “Buy before you Board” where the consequences of not having a valid ticket were publicised. More people had actually been prosecuted this year than in the corresponding period last year. Councillor Friel had mentioned the Integrated Rail Plan and Chris Jackson’s personal view was that he had been a little bit disappointed that there had not been anything more significant on the rolling programme of electrification. There was so much more scope for electrification and the pathway to net zero but alternative fuels and alternative means of propulsion could be investigated. He had been surprised at how negatively the IRP had been received in the North and he felt that the North had benefited in terms of the high speed line from Warrington through to Marsden together with the trans-Pennine re-signalling and electrification which would have some significant benefits for Liverpool City Region. In terms of inflation and economic concerns ticket prices had gone up 3.8% recently. Northern Trains had actually frozen some of the ticket prices and the advanced purchase fares or Northern only fares would not be increased until June this year as it was felt to be the right thing to do. He stated that inflationary pressures would be felt across the whole of the sector and there was uncertainty around what would happen next year. He reiterated the fact that the industry was facing an unprecedented financial challenge and that was something that everyone was going to have to consider.


            Councillor Jerry Williams noted that the pandemic had been awful on so many levels and he put on record his thanks to Chris Jackson and his team for providing the services for essential journeys to be made by key workers. As we were now beginning to emerge from the pandemic he asked what plans were proposed to put back all the services that were in place previously but due to resource issues had been curtailed over the last few years.


            Chris Jackson thanked Councillor Williams for recognising the work that the teams had done. He was also very proud of the teams as they had been in consistently through the pandemic and had worked really hard to get key workers from A to B and equally he was really proud of how the timetables had been adjusted to meet the needs of key workers across the North. In terms of the question about when things would be put back he queried what “put back” actually meant. The market had fundamentally changed.  Traditionally the railway had been built around the am and pm peak but now the railway was much busier on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday and it was therefore necessary to make sure the railway industry was geared up to deliver what would be a new normal. One of the things set against the wider financial challenge was running around empty trains using an old timetable format as that did not make financial sense. Therefore, the timetables and service patterns of the future would need to be reflective of the changes in the market.


            Councillor Nina Killen asked about fully staffed stations as this was something that the Authority felt was important to help people with their tickets and information but also to help them feel safe on the network. She asked how Northern Trains would be working with the Combined Authority to maintain those fully staffed stations in the City Region. She also noted that there were quite a lot of gender neutral facilities across our network which was fine. However, in larger stations a lot of communal areas could be seen with a row of cubicles and communal sinks. Many women said how important those spaces were to them as it made them feel safer to be in a women-only space and it provided privacy particularly when there might not be a lot of other people around. Sometimes women would self-exclude from public spaces if those facilities were not there so there was some concern that they might be disappearing and being replaced with gender neutral facilities. She asked if Chris Jackson could clarify whether Northern had a policy around that.


            Chris Jackson said that the vital role that colleagues played at stations was recognised but more importantly to look at what role they would play in the future. Ticket offices were only interacting with less than one in four journeys now and therefore he felt that there was an opportunity to do things differently. It was necessary to move with the times so a ticket office which sold six tickets per shift would not be sensible. There were some other options that could potentially be done in a space like that and that was why Northern Trains looked forward to working with the Combined Authority as to what the retail model would look like in the future and more importantly how the customer experience could be improved. In respect of the latter point around gender neutral and female only spaces he was not sure whether there was a Northern policy on that but he would take that question away and provide feedback to Councillor Killen. He referred to Lea Green which was a joint specification and therefore there were opportunities to influence layouts at locations such as that.


            Councillor Sean Halsall stated that Southport was a very important part of the region and he asked if Chris Jackson could provide an update on the plans to try and retain some of the services into Oxford Road. He also asked whether he would be prepared to work together on longer term initiatives such as reducing the journey time between Southport and Manchester to under an hour. Also how had he worked with the TSSA, RMT and ASLEF throughout the pandemic, what lessons had been learnt and how were you going to ensure that those trade union voices would be heard going forward in the future.


            Chris Jackson responded that he was proud from a Southport perspective as throughout the pandemic two trains per hour had been retained. He recognised that there had been some contention about South Manchester connectivity from Southport from December 2022 and Northern Trains were actively engaged with some of the local user groups in relation to that. However, it was necessary to manage expectations in terms of going beyond Oxford Road for the Southport services in December 2022 as it was just not feasible and it would go against all the principles of what we had been trying to do to fix the congestion problems on the Castlefield corridor. Therefore, from December 2022 the Southport service to South Manchester would terminate at Manchester Oxford Road. It would still be possible to get another service that would go through Manchester Victoria down towards Stalybridge. Considerable feedback had been received from stakeholders on that point and that was something that would need to be looked at when considering what to do with Castlefield and whether there was any future infrastructure investment on that corridor. In respect of working with the trade unions he felt that Northern Trains had very strong working relationships with those trade unions. There might not always be agreement on everything but that was what made a healthy working environment and he was really proud of just how much change had been delivered in a short space of time which had required everyone to come to the table. There had been no issues as everyone had collectively realised that it was the right thing to do in order to get key workers from A to B. The relationships were strong and there would always be contentions, but he was really proud of how those relationships had worked in the past and how they would continue going forward.


            Councillor Ged Philbin noted that it had been mentioned about the low uptake of community groups getting involved. He referred to the redundant stations along the LTR and asked whether there were any plans for either commercial or community group use of those stations.


            Chris Jackson agreed that there were some great buildings and he believed that Earlestown was one of the oldest waiting rooms in the world. There had been some initial interest pre-pandemic. Northern Trains wanted people to take over those redundant station buildings and offered incentives like favourable rates. It was also possible to bid for heritage grants to refurbish locations such as that. He stated that if anyone had any ideas or knew anyone who might be interested then please feel free to get in touch. 


            Councillor Tommy Rowe stated that this was the first year that Northern Trains had put on a Boxing Day service to complement the Merseyrail services on Boxing Day in the region. He asked if Chris Jackson could provide an update on how that went and the plans for the future for any further Boxing Day arrangements.


            Chris Jackson replied that the service in question had been the St. Helens Central - all stations essentially to Liverpool Lime Street - and it had been the only service within Northern that had operated on that day. He was aware that it had been a strong aspiration of Councillor Robinson and others for that to happen and he was proud to say that it had been delivered with 100% performance on the day. He had some figures available, but he cautioned that this was purely railway costs and did not take into consideration the wider societal benefits which would need to be factored in should we look at doing that again in the future. So in essence we had got £3k in revenue but it cost £43k to operate on the day. We need to understand the future socio-economic benefits soon as we would have to make a decision soon as to whether to operate on Boxing Day this year. He also recognised the fact that the football was not on that day which would have suppressed some of the patronage.


            Councillor Nathalie Nicholas noted that it had been mentioned that Northern Trains was a stable employer with 7,000 staff and she asked if there was a figure in terms of the gender balance, equality balance and the diverse population. It was mentioned that Northern Trains had been making strides to improve the diversity and she asked what those strides had been. She also referred to younger people as they were the future generation and if we got them to commute by train that would be great. That was a priority and she asked if there were any plans to give young people reduced tickets so that more young people would be encouraged to use the trains.


            Chris Jackson said that Northern Trains were under-represented from a gender and diversity point of view but were working tirelessly and strongly with investors in diversity to get the appropriate accreditation and there was a dedicated person in the team who was working hard on making the jobs seem more attractive people to people who would not normally work on the railway. He said that targets were quite rightly very stringent and he would be more than happy to provide more detail offline. In respect of the question around young people and affordability and he had mentioned that fares had increased by 3.8%. The average fare was hovering around the £3.60 mark which was in the lower quartile when compared with other operators. We were doing a lot to incentivise people such as duo tickets and also some great value fares.


            Councillor Jeanette Banks asked if there were any plans to recognise the history of our network.


             Chris Jackson agreed that there was so much history in this part of the world and he recalled a session Councillor Robinson and he had attended around railway heritage and how to bring that more to the fore in the city region. His understanding was that a plaque was ready for Earlestown to recognise the history of that location with the local community group and he would be more than happy to share details of that with Councillor Banks particularly if that was in her constituency. Chris Jackson thought that she was right and recognised that there was more to do in that space advising that Northern invested heavily in community rail and had close connections with railway heritage organisations. If there was anything that she felt was particularly missing, he encouraged Councillor Banks to get in touch.


            Councillor Chris Cooke said that there had been talk about making stations more attractive and getting community groups to enhance the appearance. He felt that there could be better signposting and perhaps Council’s should be reminded about ensuring that there was adequate signposting.


            Chris Jackson stated that all publicity was good publicity and in terms of wayfinding he would link that back to one of the slides and the Great British Railway logo. People would be able to associate with it and it would be the logo used going forward. It also came back to the integrated transport question whereby there was a collective responsibility to signpost people towards public transport in general.


            Councillor Liam Robinson thanked Chris Jackson for the presentation and some of the useful and positive things arising from it. For example, all the hard work which had taken place during the pandemic in improving the wi-fi system. It was also good to hear that additional investment was being put into cleaning. He felt that coming out of the pandemic it was important that people understood that public transport was a clean, healthy and safe place to be because some of the public messaging throughout the pandemic had pushed people into cars and it was necessary to reverse that.


            The Chair also stated that the offer to work with the Combined Authority and other Councils and Community Rail Partnerships was something he would be keen to take up going forward. Also the offer to work with the City Region around diversity was something that we would also like to take up and pursue. The City Region was very proud of its diversity, and it wanted to ensure that all of its communities could succeed in careers like the railway. As had been mentioned railway jobs were skilled, stable and well paid and those jobs should be available for everyone in the community.


            Finally, the Chair, thanked Chris Jackson for the Boxing Day service which had been provided and he would like to continue to work with Northern Trains on that. Equally he understood how travel patterns had changed because of the pandemic and that it had provided lots of opportunities but at the same time he would not like to lose some of the connections we had had previously. He would therefore like to keep working closely with Northern Trains on making sure that the right resource was used to facilitate further connectivity.


            In respect of Railway Industry funding some of the strongest recovery in railway patronage was in the North and indeed in this City Region. It was therefore concerning when the Treasury suggested the railway industry needed to cut its funding across the board and he felt that this should not be happening across the North of England. Additional funding would be required to build back out of the pandemic economically but just as importantly it was also needed to address the climate emergency. Therefore, it would be necessary to focus on supporting the existing railway system whilst at the same time expanding. The Combined Authority would certainly be on the front foot in fighting any proposed cuts in funding from the government.


            The Committee showed their appreciation for the presentation from Chris Jackson of Northern Trains.