The train services on the Durham Coastline are sub-standard and second rate. They fail to meet demand, and despite the removal of the Pacer Trains, we are still left using old (refurbished) rolling stock.

The lifting of Covid restrictions has led to a familiar problem on the Durham Coastline at peak periods – extreme overcrowding where passengers are turned away at the train doors.

Our train services are infrequent, just one train an hour. Those refused access miss social engagements, appointments and event start times, and in the worst case, work, risking their employment.

Northern Rail accepts there is a problem in their response below. However, the prospect of waiting until May 2023 (with no guarantee) to uplift a service that has been overcrowded for years shows that levelling up is a lie. Cross-Rail, HS2 and East-West Rail, billions are being spent in London and the South upgrading rail infrastructure, while in our region we are unable to get enough carriages to take people from Horden and Seaham to Sunderland and Newcastle.

The reality is that far from ‘levelling up’, the economic, investment, and infrastructure gap between London (and South East) and our regions is widening. From the response, there are two basic reasons for the poor service on the Durham Coastline, they are:

Lack of trained drivers, with the problem persisting into 2022
Lack of trains, with Northern Rail stating – “vehicle resource is finite”

I cannot accept these excuses. The prospect of training to be a train driver is a career opportunity that would appeal to hundreds of local young people looking for work.

A lack of rolling stock is a failure of forethought by train operators and the Government. In Seaham, there is no excuse for a lack of trains, as less than a mile from the station, we have VivaRail, the only domestic-based battery-powered train manufacture in the UK.

Following the Covid Crisis and the need to kickstart the economy, resolving rail failure on the Durham Coastline would be an ideal means of delivering jobs, investments and services that would improve the quality of life for local people.

Reply from Northern Rail about overcrowding and the lack of capacity.

Dear Grahame,

On behalf of Northern I certainly apologise to anyone who has had to travel in the conditions described in your letter to Nick of 22nd July.

I will not try to make excuses here because as you say it is not good enough, however there are some further developments I can make you aware of.

The service between Teesside and Tyneside is popular and for a number of years, especially on a weekend, it has been oversubscribed. To cope with this in the last franchise it was a commitment to double the service frequency, and we have been working to deliver this. I should also point out that we worked closely with stakeholders on this development.

We should have started to see the service run in 2019, but timetabling the service was difficult, especially north of Sunderland where we share the infrastructure with the Tyne and Wear Metro.

We looked at several options, including missing out Sunderland altogether, but in the end thanks to a great deal of work by our planners found an acceptable solution.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which frankly changed so much. Northern, along with all other Train Operators, suspended the training of new and existing drivers through most of 2020 as a result of COVID and the close proximity that ‘in cab’ training requires. Pleasingly we were able to resume this in late 2020, albeit at a much slower rate than previously due to the level of control measures. This has resulted in a shortfall of fully trained drivers versus the plan that we projected prior to COVID. In reality this shortfall will continue to be a consideration for the foreseeable future well into 2022.

Our current customer numbers albeit improving remain much lower than pre COVID levels with traditional commuter routes in particular affected with stronger uplift in the leisure sector, predominantly coastal and city centre destinations. This includes the Durham Coast in both aspects, because it traditionally had a strong commuter flow in both directions, but this has diminished. Equally, however, it does feed the leisure destinations on the Cleveland Coast and the retail opportunities that Newcastle has to offer. We also opened a new station at Horden last May, which is proving popular. Nonetheless, demand is currently lower than normal, although as the photograph demonstrates there are exceptions to this.

The current timetable reflects the level of traincrew availability and customer volumes as best we can. As an operator we are also keen to ensure we deliver a reliable service our customers can trust – since the start of the pandemic, Northern has been able to deliver a consistently high service performance based on a Timetable we know can be reliably delivered on a consistent basis.

In the short term our best option is to lengthen the services where demand has proven this is necessary, this we do with the help of local intelligence, but our vehicle resource is finite, and it is not always possible to make every train longer.

The longer term solution is to deliver the promised service uplift seen above. We have the drivers and conductors in place and the training (as above) is ongoing. I feel confident that we will be able to deliver the service by May 2023 and we are working closely with Network Rail to see if there is any uplift which can be delivered earlier.

I am sorry that I cannot offer a solution sooner, but we will continue to add carriages in the short term, and please feel free to pass any constituent comments to me to ensure that we deploy our resources efficiently. Equally please feel free to pass this on to your constituents if you feel that it would be helpful.

Kind Regards


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