The train now standing at Platform 2...

My local station, Kirkby, is an unremarkable one in many ways but is possibly unique in being a Terminus for both the most reliable train operator in the country and the least.

If you board a train from Platform 1, you'll be on a Merseyrail service to Liverpool Central and can be fairly certain you will reach your destination when you expected to; in 2019, 96.4% of Merseyrail trains were on time. But turn to your right and walk under the road bridge and you find yourself on Platform 2, from which the Arriva-operated Northern run trains to Wigan Wallgate and Manchester Victoria. Northern, of course, has become notorious for the paucity of its service and, as someone who commutes from Kirkby to Wigan on a daily basis I have seen first hand some of the issues faced by passengers.

If you need to travel to Wigan or Manchester from Kirkby, you can forget doing so before 6:30am or after 7:30pm, or at all on a Sunday, unless you can get to Huyton or Liverpool by other means. When the service is operational, there will usually be one train an hour and it will have two carriages.

Since I changed jobs in October 2019, I have experienced delays, cancellations (sometimes after boarding the train, which has then been withdrawn at Wigan) and on two occasions had to leave half an hour earlier and take a bus to Huyton - some eight miles in the wrong direction - in order to get to work on time. While going through all this, I have paid Northern approximately 8% of my monthly income, which equates to a four-figure sum annually.

Even when the 07:36 to Manchester Victoria departs Kirkby on time, it regularly arrives at Wigan Wallgate several minutes late. The cause is almost always the same; the train runs without issue up the Kirkby Branch Line as far as Pemberton, only to be held outside Wallgate to allow other services to pass it. Travelling home on the 17:01, passengers for stations to Kirkby are at the mercy of the preceding service, which runs through to Southport. Ironically, for the last few weeks, the performance of this train has been significantly improved thanks to issues with the Southport services, which are often so late and so busy that the 16:56 to Southport regularly arrives after the Kirkby train. It did so today: here's a picture.


One thing I have noticed is how quickly the delays become mundane to the point of being almost 'routine'. On the branch I use, at the times I use it, it has become normal to be anything up to five minutes late. A couple of minutes here, or four minutes there can be the difference between catching the bus home or waiting 20 minutes for the next one, but falls outside the scope of Delay Repay. Indeed, as long as a train arrives within five minutes of its scheduled time, it is officially considered to be 'on time'! Does that mean that Northern's performance in 2019 (in which 56% of their trains were 'on time') was even worse than has been reported?

Perhaps the oddest thing about my commute is that for all the inconveniences I have experienced, I am "one of the lucky ones". My journey, which should take 24 minutes, is relatively short. The two trains I rely on turn up most days and I can always get a seat. On other lines, passengers wait far longer for short-formed trains upon which far more passengers are crammed than is comfortable. Nor do I have a disability, so I can 'turn up and go' or adapt to cancellations with relative ease.

I can't imagine going through something like Dr Hannah Barham-Brown did earlier this month:

Hopefully, the new management will work on accessibility and customer service as well as reliability. 

From next week, Arriva will no longer operate the franchise, which will be managed by the Operator of Last Resort (OLR), effectively re-nationalising this part of the rail network. Ironically, this takes effect at a time Northern could be considered to have significantly improved its services to / from Kirkby since the start of 2020 because the direct service through to Manchester Victoria has been restored, where before Christmas all trains terminated at Wigan Wallgate. Of course, the opposite is true on many routes, especially the Southport via Wigan line.

Many passengers have welcomed this move and while I agree with them to a certain extent, I want to caution against seeing the change of management as a panacea for the service's ills.

In the short-term, very little is going to change. The OLR will have the same number of trains on Monday that Arriva has on Saturday and will have to deploy them as effectively as possible. Their maintenance teams won't suddenly be larger, or better equipped to deal with clapped out rolling stock. Nor will the infrastructure issues that dog major pinch points on the network, such as Manchester Oxford Road, have gone away.

However,  the 'feelgood factor' caused by bringing the franchise - and the revenue it generates - back into the public sector is significant. Passengers will still grumble about delays, particularly when paying significant sums to travel, but the knowledge that their local Train Operating Company does not exist simply to generate returns for shareholders will help.

While there's no argument that Arriva has failed to deliver what they promised when appointed in 2016, the appointment of the OLR is only one stage in a process which must include proper investment not just in trains and the people operating them, but also in the tracks on which the trains run. Without that, changing the franchise holder will only achieve limited improvements.         

© 2020 Gareth Coates