Merseyrail chief ‘sorry’ for new trains’ first year of poor performance

Merseyrail had to “get good quickly” at managing passenger disruption in a turbulent first 12 months for its new trains.

Neil Grabham, managing director of the rail provider serving the Liverpool City Region, said performance of the £500m fleet, rolled out last January, had been “tremendously damaging” for passengers who wanted seamless journeys. The performance of the class 777 fleet was the subject of a scrutiny session by the city region’s transport committee on Thursday afternoon.

Among those presenting was Matthias Hämmerle, head of metro, for train manufacturer Stadler who said he “felt the pain of passengers” over the last year.

Back in 2016, a deal was first struck that would see the Liverpool City Region purchase the fleet of new vehicles from the Swiss-based firm. 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.

The first journey was met with much fanfare, leaving Liverpool Central with a gaggle of politicians and journalists on board. This proved to be a peak for the service in the first year, with a whole host of delays and issues to follow.

Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram told the committee how the new trains had been a “huge talking issue” for the combined authority and “one of the most scrutinised things we have as an organisation.” He said the authority could have leased the new trains but wanted to bring them back into public ownership.

The Labour man said, “I too appreciate the ups and downs” and gets “just as frustrated by poor performance” but it’s “normal to have teething problems in the first 12 months.”

He rejected the idea that the roll out was rushed, saying the combined authority “waited and waited and waited until we thought it was the right time” but did admit it was a “slow start”. Mr Rotheram said the trains are now on a journey towards the right direction and “we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Touching on reliability, Mr Rotheram – standing for a third term as Mayor – said it would have become even more of an issue had the ageing stock been kept on longer.

Speaking on behalf of the manufacturer, Mr Hämmerle said Stadler was “honoured” to take on building of the trains for the city region and would not stop until it had delivered the “premium product”. The executive admitted there had been a “dip in performance” and the company had held intensive meetings with stakeholders including the Metro Mayor.

Paul Patrick, Stadler’s UK engineering director, said one of the “key issues during the turbulent times” was key personnel and recruitment has been driven to address that. David Powell, Merseyrail programme director, said there were still some trains to be delivered to the city region before the provider was fully stocked with new models, with older trains still operating primarily on the Southport line.

Merseyrail chief Mr Grabham told the committee the first eight-car service took its maiden journey today on the Ormskirk line without incident. He said this was a “major stepping stone” particularly with event planning for the Grand National festival at Aintree next month and other major events further ahead.

The managing director said the services are making “slow and steady” progress but isn’t where he expects it to be yet. This included the near 5% cancellation rates in December which he said was “not acceptable” and aimed for below 2%.

He added that Merseyrail had to “get good quickly at managing passenger disruption” which it hadn’t really experienced before the new fleet came into service.

Asked about what could have been done to mitigate issues earlier, Mr Hämmerle said intensive tests were undertaken in Germany but “specific issues” emerged in service. He said the firm “reacted quite fast” to keep trains rolling and he “felt the pain of passengers”.

Mr Grabham was pressed on how the performance of the first 12 months of the fleet had impacted the provider. He said, “It’s been tremendously damaging to thousands of passengers who want to make seamless journeys on a daily basis over the last 12 months and they haven’t been able to complete those journeys without disruption or cancellation. That is something all of us are incredibly for and take responsibility for.”

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