They say good things come to those who wait.
Then wait some more and more and more.
After seven years of rattling along on a tired old fleet, January 2023 marked the rollout of the much-anticipated class 777 trains on the Merseyrail network. The 23rd of the month was a day long anticipated on Merseyside as the maiden voyage left Liverpool Central.
It was all the way back in 2016 that a deal was first struck that would see the Liverpool City Region purchase the £500m fleet of new vehicles from Swiss manufacturer Stadler. As well as the fleet of new high-spec trains, the historic deal would include upgrades to the network’s power supply, platforms and track and the refurbishment of the depots at Kirkdale and Birkenhead North.
As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s fair to say the first 12 months of the shiny, hi-tech new rolling stock has hit a snag or two, and what Merseyrail had hoped would be a smooth transition into a modern fleet has been hit by unwanted and unscheduled cancellations, delays and frustration.
It was a long road to getting the trains on from that initial agreement almost eight years ago now. Throw in a global pandemic that we all had to contend with, alongside a protracted negotiation with the RMT to ensure guards would remain on the fleet, and getting them onto the line was an achievement in itself.
The first journey was met with much fanfare, leaving Liverpool Central with a gaggle of politicians, journalists, and Bella the dog on board. Passengers were excited by the new stock too.
That was until the faults kicked in. A month after the first trains went into service on the Kirkby line, they had to be taken off due to a software issue.
While this went some way to fixing the problems, it wasn’t a silver bullet, with the old, tiring stock still on the rails to meet passenger demand as the rollout continued along the Ormskirk and Wirral lines. Neil Grabham, managing director at Merseyrail, this week told the Liverpool City Region transport committee it had been a “challenging year” for the operator.
He said, “Clearly a time of huge transformation in rail across the city, probably the largest for a generation. Despite what were some challenging times, as is always the case when you bring a new fleet into operation, Merseyrail has maintained its place in the top five operators in the country.”
As it stands, 31 new trains are available for service, including battery-operated stock that operate between the new £80m Headbolt Lane station and Kirkby – not without issue – but Mr Grabham said they were “a truly great example of Liverpool leading the way.” Around 200 new drivers have also been fully trained up.
Addressing the battery-powered fleet, which removes the need for the use of the electrified third rail, Steve Dodd, chief operating officer at Merseyrail, was also in a reflective mood. He said, “A number of months ago the reliability levels weren’t where we wanted them to be, where our standards are and what our customers expect.”
Mr Dodd added how the operator, while improved, expects “more work to do”. He said, “The introduction of the new trains has brought significant change to the railway.
“As with any period of significant change, we do expect some challenges, especially embedding new technology and adopting new processes.” Mr Dodd admitted Merseyrail had not expected all of the challenges it faced but teams had worked “tirelessly” with Merseytravel and Stadler to “address them as quickly as possible”.
This included Steve Rotheram, Metro Mayor for the Liverpool City Region, reading the Swiss manufacturer the riot act in a bid to improve the state of the trains across the city.
Suzanne Grant, commercial director at Merseyrail, told committee members officials were aware of the problems commuters had faced. She said, “Our standards did drop, particularly on the Headbolt Lane line and that is below the standards we’re used to offering our passengers.”
In a bid to win back passenger trust, which Mayor Rotheram admitted the operator needed to do, Merseyrail extended an olive branch of a full refund to Railpass holders held up in 2023. Those who have bought certain tickets at Headbolt Lane, Kirkby, and Fazakerley stations were invited to claim their money back, with more than 700 receiving payment so far.
The scheme was introduced to recognise “the patience and understanding” shown by passengers. Writing to those eligible, Mr Rotheram has admitted Merseyrail needs to win back passenger trust. He said, “As with the introduction of any major new technology, we anticipated that we would encounter some teething issues and disruption during the delivery of our new station and trains.
“We have been working around the clock to overcome a lot of these hurdles – but I’ll be the first to say that services on the Headbolt Lane line have fallen short of the standards that our passengers deserve.
“I’m aware that you’ve experienced significant delays, uncertainty, and cancellations for a prolonged period and it’s not lost on me that these can have impacts on lives and livelihoods. You deserve to have a public transport network that you can rely on – and I know that we need to rebuild your trust in the network.”
A rocky start then for the new fleet, some of which still carry Eurovision insignia and livery from last year. Let’s hope by this time in 2025, we’re all united by the sound of happy commuters on consistent trains.