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13 August 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 5:25pm

Life on the Northern Rail frontline: “I was forced to quit my job by the nightmare commute”

Three months after a new timetable was introduced, chaos reigns. 

By Pete Dowd

Earlier this year, Judy Hallam quit her job as an accountant. Following days and weeks of disruption, she found her daily commute on the train from Mossley to Manchester caused her unbearable stress. 

“I would say that the commute to work was a major factor for me quitting my job,” she tells me. “There were other factors – I’d been having some health problems with my stomach and I’d had tests done and they put it down to stress.” But when Hallam looked what was creating the pressure, there was an obvious culprit. “When I as getting to the office I was already stressed after the commute, and that was before the timetable change.”

With tales of rammed carriages, trains skipping stations and cancellations, Judy says her nerves were shot. She describes the commuting window of 7.10am to 8.30am as “a nightmare” experience: “You didn’t know what was going to happen – how many carriages were going to turn up, how many people would be on board, how delayed it was going to be.”

The ongoing chaos caused distress for the mum of two, who was forced to miss family dinners. 

“If I didn’t get the 11 minutes past five train home I had to get the 5.57pm and it was so busy that you often couldn’t even get on at Victoria. The only way to get it would be to walk to Salford and catch it there – around a mile away but then everyone was trying to get on at Victoria and it was so busy.”

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She compares the crush to her time spent living in the densely-populated city of Hong Kong: “They’d call ‘move down the carriage please’ again and again until they suddenly announced there were too many passengers and they wouldn’t move until some people got off, and no one would.”

In May, a new timetable for trains was introduced, and Northern Rail quickly became the byword for transport chaos. Initially, as Hallam’s role allowed her to work flexibly, she was taking the 2.57pm home in time to pick up her children, but then the new timetable came in and the cancellations started. She suddenly found herself catching a tram to Ashton-under-Lyne and paying for a taxi to Mossley – then being charged a premium for excess childminding time, all because of the delayed and cancelled trains.

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For Hallam, the reduced services were the straw that broke the camel’s back: “I thought, ‘I can’t deal with it any worse than it is’ – it as already horrific. So I quit my job.” The family is now managing on one less salary. 

Three months after the timetable change, Northern Rail is still cancelling dozens of trains on consecutive Sundays. Meanwhile, rail commuters face ticket price hikes. Northern Rail passengers also must brace themselves for further disruption due to strike action.

New Which? analysis reveals – after months of disruption for Northern and Govia Thameslink rail services – that trust in the train industry is approaching its lowest point in the last six years, according to its consumer insight tracker.

Only 23 per cent of people said they trusted train travel companies in July 2018 – down six percentage points on July 2017, making railways the least trusted consumer industry aside from car dealers.

The disruption has an impact not just on the finances of individuals like Hallam, but the wider economy. 

Hannah Davies works for the Northern Health and Science Alliance, which brings together research from across the north of England. But the “Northern Powerhouse in Health”, which helps spread the expertise of the North’s cities is being hampered on its own doorstep – because of the transport links it has to deal with.

“As an non-profit organisation, we represent the hospitals and universities across the north of England, and we tell people to invest in the north of England,” she says. “But it’s heartbreaking to know that the North is being let down by a train timetable. It has a massive impact.”

Davies lives in Durham and often works in Leeds and Manchester. “My trains home are often not stopping in Durham to make up time, so they go straight on to Newcastle, meaning I have to get off in York – more than 70 miles away – and make my way back.”

She argues that the success of the Northern Powerhouse hinges on reliable infrastructure.

“The government is banging on about innovation and industrial strategy,” Davies says. “But you’re not going to support the North to be what it can be if something as important as infrastructure is letting it down.”

Some passengers are taking matters into their own hands. 

On Friday 10 August alone, the Northern Fail App noted 101 fully-cancelled services across the Northern Rail network, as well as 86 “part-cancelled” services and 76 stops cancelled. On Sunday 12 August, Northern cancelled a reported 80 rail services for a second time, blaming engineering projects for causing crew scheduling “difficulties”.

Recording these failures is all in a day’s work for Nicholas Mitchell, the app developer who has seen his creation muster almost 14,000 downloads in just three months and has even been mentioned in parliament

Nicholas explains: “The app lists daily announced cancellations and carriage reductions across the whole Northern Rail network directly from Northern’s website, it also aggregates the data to show historical stats of up to two weeks prior to a selected date.”

He credits the Northern Fail app with giving easy access to historic data on the Northern service that was not easily available anywhere else, adding: “The app was the first place to start reporting on part-cancelled services before this it was only ever fully cancelled services.”

Although recording the paucity of Northern Rail’s services, the app has little real-time impact for the commuters who need to get here they’re going and find out that they’re out of luck.

The heatwave summer of 2018 has been compared to 1976 for its soaring temperatures, but it also has echoes of that summer’s industrial unrest and economic crisis. Whatever comes next, one thing looks certain: the temperature of rail commuters will continue to soar.