After a year of rail chaos in Lancashire, 2019 is set to be 'another difficult year' warn MPs

Commuters waiting at Preston station
Commuters waiting at Preston station
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Rail passengers are set for “another difficult year” amid more timetable changes and increased levels of engineering work, a House of Commons report has warned.

MPs claimed that there is still “a way to go” before public sector body Network Rail and train operating companies collaborate in a way that minimises disruption during infrastructure projects.

Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy

Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said passengers and taxpayers “risk continuing to pay the price” for the failure of the Department for Transport (DfT) to improve its “strategic management” of the railway.

The report described how there were “unacceptable levels of disruption” last year.

Operators such as Northern failed to operate hundreds of trains each day after new timetables were introduced in May, while other train services were “significantly delayed and overcrowded”.

And with further significant timetable changes planned for May, alongside increased amounts of maintenance work and major improvement projects, the disruption could be set to be repeated in 2019, it warned.

The report added that “2019 looks to be another difficult year for both passengers and the rail industry”.

The warning is published the day after hundreds of business and civic leaders from across the North of England came together for the Great Northern Conference, in which the transport infrastructure of the North was highlighted as a major concern for both passengers and freight.

Senior figures agreed that long-term infrastructure plans were welcome but that more was needed to address the needs of business and passengers in the present.

And Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail, vowed that his organisation and the industry at large would “atone for its sins” following the disruption.

Former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams is carrying out a wide-ranging Government-commissioned review of the railways.

PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said: “2018 was a year from hell for many rail users and unless the Government gets a grip there is every chance that passengers will suffer in 2019 as well.

“The ‘root and branch’ review will report later in 2019 and must then be implemented, so passengers have some time to wait for any improvements arising from its recommendations.”

Robert Nisbet, the regional director at industry body the Rail Delivery Group, insisted train operators and Network Rail are “learning the lessons from last year’s disruption”.

He acknowledged that current work to improve the railway “will not go far” which is why the organisation is supporting the review by Mr Williams.

A DfT spokesman accepted that the disruption experienced last summer was “unacceptable” and said the lessons learned helped to deliver timetable changes in December.

He added: “The independently-chaired root and branch review of our railway is considering all parts of the rail industry to ensure the focus is on putting passengers first.

“The Government and rail industry are committed to working together to ensure improvements are made.”

However, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald said the PAC report is “damning of the utter incompetence of the Department for Transport and its Ministers”.

A former Treasury Minister has called on Northern leaders to “raise the frequency and intensity” of its calls for high speed rail links across the North of England.

Speaking at the Great Northern Conference event, at New Dock Hall in Leeds, Lord O’Neill said he regarded Northern Powerhouse Rail as “crucial to northern productivity”.

Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, added: “Despite the efforts of hard-working rail staff, time and again the transport network in our part of this small island proves unreliable, unaffordable and inefficient.

“Northerners cannot take the jobs they want, businesses cannot hire the people they want.”