West Midlands Trains (WMT), the company that operates West Midlands Railway and London Northwestern services, has been told by government that it must spend an extra £20m on improving services for passengers after badly breaching its performance targets.
Announcing the move, Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps said: “One of my priorities is getting the trains to run on time and, as a commuter myself, I understand all too well the frustration caused by endless delays and cancellations.
“West Midlands Trains have failed to fulfil their obligations – to their franchise agreement and, most importantly, to their passengers.
“The action we’re taking means they must invest in rapidly improving services, so that passengers have reliable, punctual trains they can rely on.”
As a result of this action, the additional funding will be invested in delivering timetable improvements and recruiting new train drivers to tackle staff shortages. Passengers will also continue to be offered compensation for poor service, with discounts on season tickets and off-peak fares.
Unions and some other groups have been calling for WMT to lose its franchise due to its poor performance, as has happened to Northern. This seems not to be happening, but the government’s move is a stark reminder to other operators that they are all on notice to stick to their franchise promises.
Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed this: “Having monitored the poor performance of West Midlands Trains with great concern, we’re taking action to ensure they fulfil their contractual commitments and deliver the service passengers deserve.
“Every minute of delay adds up and, for far too long, passengers have been left stuck on train platforms at the mercy of a fickle live departure board.
“Having our country’s trains run on time must be the rule, not the exception. This is a warning that operators simply must do better for their passengers.”
Since the May 2019 timetable change, WMT’s performance has deteriorated to such an extent that it has breached its franchise agreements on delay minutes and cancellations. As a result, and under the terms of its contract, WMT has been required to agree a ‘Remedial Plan’ to ensure that performance recovers.
The additional £20 million funding will now be used for a variety of measures including:
- Compensating passengers for the poor service by offering a three per cent discount on season ticket renewals and offering a 10 per cent reduction in off-peak fares during July and August 2020;
- A series of timetable improvements, with wide-ranging changes planned for May 2020 and December 2020;
- Recruitment of additional drivers and senior conductors to combat staffing shortages;
- Investment in day-to-day operations to make services more reliable.
The Department for Transport has said it will continue to monitor WMT’s performance closely to ensure it meets its contractual obligations.
In response, West Midlands Trains simply announced that it will invest an additional £20 million into the railway network following a period of poor performance in 2019. It didn’t actually mention that the Department for Transport had forced this investment through, simply saying that it had “been agreed with the Department for Transport as part of a detailed plan to improve services which includes performance-boosting timetable changes and hiring additional staff”.
Julian Edwards, managing director of West Midlands Trains, admitted there had been shortcomings: “Our performance in the second half of last year was simply unacceptable and we apologise to all our customers for this. Passengers can be assured we have developed a robust recovery plan which builds on our recent improved reliability.
“It is right we continue to compensate our customers and we will shortly confirm further discounts covering February half-term and beyond. This is on top of the season ticket and summer discounts we have already implemented.
“We have held detailed discussions with the West Midlands Mayor and others to ensure this extra investment – over and above our original £1billion franchise commitment – benefits all our customers and restores the reliable rail service they deserve.
“We are fully focused on achieving this as quickly as possible. Every issue cannot be solved overnight and we thank our customers for their patience while we fix their service.”
Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street was clear that, in his view, this was WMT’s last chance.
“West Midlands Trains’ performance at the back end of last year was absolutely woeful,” he said, “and it is only right – as I requested – that the firm must pay the price financially. I am also pleased to see this money will be re-invested locally to help restore the reliable service that passengers want and deserve.
“Since I issued my ultimatum in December of improve or lose the franchise, WMT has got better and performance is statistically on the up. But I still have very serious concerns and, alongside the DfT, will be keeping the firm under strict review. I will not hesitate to ask for the franchise to be stripped if performance slips again.”
David Sidebottom, director of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, also welcomed the move: “Following this unacceptable performance West Midlands passengers sent a clear signal of disapproval in our latest survey with satisfaction dropping by 11 percentage points to its lowest score in 10 years.
“Passengers tell us that their biggest priority is rail services they can rely on to get them to work on time, or home at a reasonable hour.
“This investment will help take some of the sting out of the frustration many passengers have felt as a result of problems created by the timetable chaos and poor performance by the rail industry.”