The chairs of four rail user groups, including the CLPG, have written to the West Midlands Rail Executive to protest against the “unacceptable” level of cancellations on West Midlands Trains services.
John Ellis, of the CLPG, Martin Lambert, of the Solihull & Leamington Spa Rail Users Association, Peter Morris of the Shakespeare Line Promotion Group and William Whiting, of the Stourbridge Line User Group, have called on the WMRE and WMT to take urgent action to solve the problems.
They say the disruption in recent weeks has made it impossible for people to rely on train services between Birmingham, Worcestershire and Warwickshire.
The full text of the letter, to Tom Painter, Head of Rail Franchising & Partnerships at the West Midlands Rail Executive, is as follows:
Dear Mr Painter,
As rail passenger user groups, our four organisations cover a wide area of the West Midlands, representing a significant number of train service users.
We make this representation to you on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people who need to use the train across the West Midlands, Worcestershire and Warwickshire.
As you will know, on September 19th 2021, a National Rail Contract (NRC) to provide train services for West Midlands Railway by West Midlands Trains Ltd commenced for a period of up to five years. Two of the four key measures are the delivery of Operational Performance and Customer Experience.
The daily situation faced by rail passengers trying to use train services provided by West Midlands Trains (WMT) is unacceptable. Peoples ability to attend work, hospital or medical appointments, visit relatives, shop or go about their normal day to day business is being seriously impaired by a scale of unreliability that has made using the train in the West Midlands untenable for so many. With passengers unable to plan journeys because of a persistent scale of unreliability due to the daily level of train service cancellations, such disruption has become interminable. Passengers who persevere and use the train find themselves stranded and unable to get home later in the day or evening, with the provision of alternative transport too often haphazard with few or no staff on hand to assist passengers.
As Rail Passenger User Groups, we are receiving a growing number of complaints from our members, non-members and via social media platforms. Last week (18-24 October), nearly a quarter of all services on Snow Hill lines (194 out of 798) were either fully or partially cancelled. This led to long gaps between services at both ends of the line (a four-hour gap with no services at stations such as Wythall and Henley-in-Arden), and the disruption was repeated on consecutive days. On Friday, October 20th, a four-hour gap in train services in both directions between Worcester and Hereford from late afternoon until mid-evening occurred, inconveniencing many peak hour passengers.
On Tuesday, October 26th, the last five trains from the Stourbridge line towards Snow Hill were all cancelled, meaning that the final departure of the day was at 2020hrs from Worcester Foregate Street. Such short notice cancellations are an altogether too regular occurrence across the network affecting Hereford-Worcester-Birmingham, Wolverhampton- Shrewsbury and Nuneaton-Leamington Spa services. The scale of disruption not only affects people’s ability to go about their daily business but is also undermining the local economy, crucial elements to the well-being of the West Midlands and neighbouring counties. Employers trying to build back their businesses and retailers trying to get back on their feet are having their efforts impaired and undermined by such an erratic train service.
We would be failing in our role and purpose if we did not seek to raise these matters on behalf of users and request the utmost attention at the highest level to deliver an effective and sustainable resolution as soon as possible. We acknowledge the issues concerning the pandemic offered as reasons by WMT, namely an initial lack of drivers and over 100 drivers still in training due to the Covid pandemic. Fundamental questions arise as to how West Midlands Trains are in this position, given that the driver age and associated retirement profile would have been evident when the franchise commenced.
An audit of train service cancellations for Tuesday, October 26th, 2021, associated with operators that serve Birmingham and the West Midlands area showed that West Midlands Trains recorded 63 cancellations, with a total just 2 for all other operators in the West Midlands (Avanti West Coast, Cross Country and Chiltern recorded no cancellations). We also audited Bristol as it has a higher level of Covid 19 cases with areas around Bristol (South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset) currently with the highest Covid rates in the country (twice the national average). The number of train service cancellations at Bristol on October 26th was 6.
We are also concerned about an emerging pattern of late afternoon/evening cancellations between Monday to Saturday. Before the pandemic, this pattern of disruption emerged in the run-up to Christmas on two consecutive years. Passengers do not expect to see this repeated, especially after the West Midlands Mayor sought sustainable improvements in the wake of the 2019 year-end performance. Yet, last week’s performance matched the appalling level of service cancellations experienced just before Christmas 2019.
While we welcome the actions WMT says they are taking to address the driver and train crew shortage, these reasons to explain what is now a prolonged and worsening situation are unconvincing. However, we are dismayed at the resignation and defeatism inherent in WMT’s approach and statements that suggest an inability to address, manage and resolve this disruption until the end of 2022.
Staff sickness is also being used as a reason contributing to train service unreliability. Are sickness absence plans deployed by WMT where there are cases of persistent or pattern related sickness absenteeism? Is sickness absence being managed effectively and robustly?
The most pressing need is to improve train service reliability now and to a significantly higher level. It is unacceptable to advertise and try to operate a timetable for which there are not enough drivers and/or train crew. Planning to cover the unavoidable gaps in rosters relying on overtime ensures that short notice cancellations manifest daily; the situation is intolerable and indefensible for passengers. We are also concerned for the front line staff at WMT, with a higher incidence of abuse directed at them as a result of the situation. Senior management appear invisible, with the use of public relations spokespersons compounding an increasing loss of confidence in the operator of this National Rail Contract.
What consideration has been given to temporarily reducing the timetable to a level that ensures adequate resources exist to operate all WMT services, and if such consideration has not been made, why not?
What consideration has been given to split services temporarily by running a Worcester >< Snow Hill service and a Snow Hill >< Stratford service as part of a reduced timetable, with a “hot standby” unit and crew stabled at Snow Hill?
Both these temporary solutions now need serious consideration and implementation.
We very much want our railways to succeed; it’s why we exist, to help improve train services and work with stakeholders to attract more patronage to the railways, and we do so willingly and voluntarily. We have respectively and happily spoken up for the railways and its stakeholders on countless occasions in the past as we consider ourselves to be a good friend to the sector. Part of being a good friend means saying what needs to be heard even when the content may be somewhat unpalatable. A united and joint representation such as this is unprecedented, and that’s because the situation that passengers are facing daily is intolerable and the impact upon their lives unacceptable.
The potential damage to rail travel and train services across the West Midlands area and its neighbouring counties will be irremediable if robust and tangible actions are not taken in the short term. At the same time, a sustainable action plan dealing with the medium to long term requires to be implemented, including the review and replacement of any outdated employment terms and conditions, giving managers the space to manage performance effectively.
We look forward to you addressing with WMT through its National Rail Contract the dire situation and issues outlined that cannot be allowed to continue.
Solihull & Leamington Spa Rail Users Association
Cotswold Line Promotion Group
Shakespeare Line Promotion Group
Stourbridge Line User Group