‘Frustrating’ first year as new trains face scrutiny session

A “challenging” first year for the new trains on the Merseyrail network is to face scrutiny from city region leaders.

While the first journey of the £500m fleet of Class 777s last January was highly anticipated, it has been a turbulent time for the trains since they were initially introduced. Delays, breakdowns and subsequent payouts to frustrated customers have pockmarked the first year of the rollout.

Now Merseyrail’s performance with the stock will be debated by members of the Liverpool City Region transport committee as it looks ahead.

On 23 January 2023, passengers were joined on the platform at Liverpool Central by politicians, journalists and even a dog called Bella for the first full journey on the much-heralded new units. However, 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 older stock still on the rails to meet passenger demand as the rollout continued along the Ormskirk and Wirral lines.

Breakdowns and cancellations intensified after the opening of a new Headbolt Lane station in Kirkby last October, with problems blamed on new battery technology being used to reach the station.

Reflecting previously Neil Grabham, managing director at Merseyrail, told the 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 operates 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.”

Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram with one of the new 777 trains

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.”

Images: www.fotopiaimages.com Lead image: A 777 unit at Birkenhead North

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