‘A political rush’: Were Merseyrail’s new trains ready to hit the tracks?
Delays, cancellations and a transport committee kept in the dark
Dear readers — unless you’ve been taking a much-needed social media detox over the last month or two, you’ll have seen the influx of complaints about Merseyrail's latest fleet of trains. Or, you might have been making those complaints yourself. From uncomfortable seating and windows that won’t open, to trains delayed and cancelled at the last minute, the long-awaited new trains have been a huge disappointment so far.
But what’s gone wrong? Some say the problems are to be expected. “New trains never work out of the box,” transport expert Christian Wolmar told us. But The Post has spoken to sources in the transport committee who told us there was a “political rush” to get the trains up and running and a lack of communication over new developments. One member of the committee was so out of the loop they only found out about the launch of the new fleet when it appeared on the news.
Steve Rotheram, the metro mayor who – perhaps unwisely, it now turns out – wagered his political reputation on the new fleet of trains, has expressed his frustration with the Merseyrail issues, which his team characterise as normal teething problems. It’s a long way from 2021, however, when Rotheram told the Echo that the trains were “a real statement of intent on the future of transport in our region.”
So what’s really been going on behind the scenes? That’s the subject of today’s story, which as usual for this edition is a members-only read, although our regular readers can get a good sense of the story before the cruel paywall kicks in. Why do we impose such barbaric restrictions on the flow of our journalism? Well, you probably know the reason: because this kind of journalism can only happen if we have paying members. If you want a form of local journalism in Merseyside that spends a few days trying to get hold of sources, fact-checks their claims and attempts to create a fair and balanced picture, you need to pay for it.
Any old site can rewrite press releases from Merseyrail or Steve Rotheram’s team – in fact, many do. Remember all those breathless Echo stories from the past few years about “a new quicker, safer and more spacious Merseyrail train” and how they “will be dynamically tested before they enter service”? Those were press release jobs - articles that contrast sharply with the in-depth data-led analysis we published about Merseyrail earlier this year, a story that prompted fury from the network’s bosses.
If you want proper scrutiny and analysis that helps you to understand what’s really going on and provides genuine insight, please join us as a member if you haven’t already.
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‘A political rush’: Were Merseyrail’s new trains ready to hit the tracks?
By Lisa Rand and Abi Whistance
When Liverpool City Region announced a trailblazing £500 million investment in a fleet of battery-operated trains in 2016, the news was greeted with great excitement. Merseyside had among the country's oldest train stock, and with the North rarely at the cutting edge of public transport investment, it was seen as a major coup for the region.
The first of their kind in the UK, the new Merseyrail trains would carry more passengers and help decarbonise the network — bringing the region's transport into the 21st century. The trains would be custom-built by Swiss rail company Stadler and were set to be completed by 2020. They (along with the launch of the new £80 million Headbolt Lane station) became a major theme of metro mayor Steve Rotheram’s mayoralty — a sign of renewal and hope.
A factory flood, the pandemic and industrial disputes delayed their arrival, and it wasn’t until January of this year that the first train was launched. Several more were put on the tracks in the run-up to Eurovision, but it wasn’t long before issues started to bubble up.
Passengers began to complain about hard seating and windows that wouldn’t open. “Trains every 30 instead of 15 minutes. Temperature always hot. New trains are shit @merseyrail,” one X user wrote. Soon came the gripes about the service, with delayed trains and last-minute cancellations reported. “Can not believe this is the 10th time in as many days you have cancelled trains without warning you are useless,” another person tweeted.
Data from the Office of Rail and Road shows Merseyrail — which is still among the most reliable operators in the UK — has seen an increase in cancellations. This trend began in 2022, but issues have increased considerably throughout the year. In August, just 3.5% of Merseyrail trains were cancelled or significantly delayed. By October, that figure had jumped to 5.2%.
In terms of passenger complaints, data released quarterly showed an uptick in the first six months of 2023 (a jump from 12 per 100,000 at the end of 2022, to 20 per 100,000 by March), dropping slightly in June but still above 2022 levels.
How significant these data points are will become clearer when more recent figures are released in December. Yet Rotheram has already voiced his concerns, calling the roll-out of the trains “frustratingly poor” and taking aim at manufacturer Stadler for a series of “unacceptable” performance issues.
Members of the Combined Authority Transport Committee — a group of 24 councillors responsible for scrutinising strategic transport and travel policy decisions — have spoken to The Post on the condition of anonymity. They told us the process of bringing the trains into service was “rushed”, noting bad communication from the Combined Authority and a culture of keeping members in the dark about major decisions.
One member of the committee said they felt the initial roll-out in January 2023 was “rushed out of political expediency”, because of the pressure the metro mayor and Combined Authority were under to move forward given the delays that had already occurred. Additional trains brought onto the Northern Line for Eurovision were also, according to the member, “clearly pushed — a political rush”.
Another committee member told The Post they only found out about the roll-out after watching the news. “The announcement when it came was a complete surprise,” they said. “Normally there should be a pre-briefing, at least to let us know a major announcement was coming, but I sat there watching the TV and that’s how I found out.”