A union dispute over who presses the door buttons is holding up Merseyrail’s new fleet
Plus, beautiful street photography of Liverpool's victory parade, and the rest of our weekly briefing
Dear readers — today’s edition looks at the much-discussed issues on Merseyrail, which has suffered from unusual delays in recent months and has now reduced its timetable. We’ve heard that one of the factors delaying the arrival of new trains is a union dispute — over who will press the door buttons… More on that below.
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⛅️ This week’s weather
The big story: A union dispute over who presses the door buttons is holding up Merseyrail’s new fleet
Top line: 29 out of 57 Merseyrail trains were out of service last week, amidst rising anger about the performance of the network. A reduced timetable began yesterday, with most trains now operating every half hour, and Merseyrail’s boss is blaming unexpected wear on the wheel bearings of many trains.
The issues are down to mounting problems with out-of-date trains, most of which should have been replaced with the long-awaited new fleet by now. This is how the Echo describes the situation:
A deal to purchase a 52-strong fleet of state-of-the-art new trains from a Swiss manufacturer was finalised in 2016, but the project to deliver the new Merseyrail trains has been slowed down, with the global pandemic being one of the main reasons, as well as flooding in the factory they were being made.
We’ve been told there is more to it than that. Yes, the pandemic has slowed down the delivery of trains, and those trains need lots of testing. But another factor delaying the new fleet is a long-running dispute between the RMT Union and Merseyrail over the role of guards.
Button pressers: The argument (which has been rumbling on for years, and led to two short walkouts in 2017) is currently over who will press the door buttons: train guards or drivers. The new trains are designed so drivers can operate the doors, which strips back the “safety-critical” role of the guards and could result in them getting less pay in future.
An insider says some of the new trains are already ready to use. It is thought the dispute has slowed down delivery.
“The dispute with unions is starting to take its toll,” says Tony Miles, a rail expert and journalist for The Railway Magazine. “People on Merseyside are starting to pay twice — partly to buy the new trains, but also to maintain the old trains.”
The Post hears that drivers are currently refusing to speak to Merseyrail until an agreement is reached with the train guards first, but a combined authority spokesperson says “productive dialogue” is underway.
The Merseyrail system is operated by a franchise holder called Merseyrail Electrics (which is a joint venture between transport firm Abellio and the massive services company Serco). But it is overseen by a political body called Merseytravel, an arm of the Liverpool City Region combined authority, so metro mayor Steve Rotheram has to take responsibility for the system’s performance.
Rotheram certainly likes to be associated with Merseyrail when it has good news, and he made a big deal of promoting his “Merseyrail for All” plan last year.
In March, Merseyrail was named “best performing regional rail operator” for the fourth year in a row by a major transport awards body.
The dispute: “On a purely legal basis, unions can only negotiate with their employer,” Miles says. “The union is in dispute with Merseyrail, but they’re actually angry over something that’s happening with Merseytravel. Merseyrail is in the middle. They can’t negotiate unless the combined authority actually say they can negotiate.”
A spokesperson for the combined authority told us:
The train operator and trade unions remain in productive dialogue to finalise operational agreements. Whilst there is still some work to do, we are all united in our desire to see these world-class trains in service as soon as possible and are continuing to do everything possible to make this happen this year.
The website On Time Trains allows you to check how the services you use compare to trains around the country in terms of punctuality. Some key stations in Liverpool have fallen down the national rankings in recent months, although Merseyrail’s numbers still seem to stack up favourably against other nearby areas.
Context: This story in the i newspaper gives a sense of the national picture, with falling reliability across the board, passenger numbers not recovering to pre-pandemic levels but better performance around London and the South East than we are getting in the North. Oh, and the massive RMT strike is coming up.
Bottom line: The combined authority says it is holding daily briefings with Merseyrail and is hoping the new fleet will come into service by the autumn.
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Your Post news briefing
Will Liverpool City Council be under the watchful eye of government commissioners for even longer than planned? A leaked memo seen by the Echo seems to suggest so. The commissioners have now sent back their latest report to the Department of Levelling Up and the government memo says: “Commissioners do not yet have confidence that Liverpool City Council is on the right path to deliver best value and further government action will be required.” Read our special report, which interviewed the chief commissioner: “Inside Liverpool's turbulent politics: Critics say it’s a council in limbo — under weak leadership and in hock to the all-powerful government commissioners. Is that true?”
A Liverpool man whose company oversaw health and safety during the building of a £100 million conference centre for the Unite union has pleaded guilty at Liverpool Crown Court to conspiracy to supply cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and cannabis, reports Matt O’Donoghue for The Times. Some of Martin Grant’s alleged offences were committed while he was managing director of Safety Support Consultants, a company owned by the son of former mayor Joe Anderson.
Sefton Council has signed a £3 million deal with Leeds City Council that will see the authorities combine to improve children’s services after a successful bid to the Department of Education. An Ofsted report found the pandemic took a significant toll on the demand for children’s services in Sefton but also highlighted an overreliance on private agency staff and that the increasing workforce hadn’t translated to better service to meet demand.
Last chance to have your say on the future governance of Liverpool: the consultation on how the city council should be run ends Monday 20th June. It asks whether you think the council should continue to be run under the mayoralty, a leader and cabinet model, or move to a committee system like Sheffield has done.
Home of the week
A grade II listed, thee bedroom apartment overlooking Princes Park is on the market for £285,000. It has a log burner, a period fireplace and a vintage cast iron bathtub.
🎉 It’s Africa Oyé Festival this weekend, the annual free celebration of African and Caribbean music and culture in Sefton Park. There will also be workshops for kids, food stalls, bars and a selection of afterparties for those who want to dance.
🎸 A full list of gigs at Future Yard this week, which has a great sprawling outdoor space. On Thursday night, ethereal Serbian-Canadian singer Dana Gavanski is playing, with support from the swing and blues band Gadzooks.
🇺🇦 We loved this exhibition in the Baltic Triangle championing the work of Ukrainian artists and photographers. It runs until Sunday.
📚 Bold Street Coffee is hosting a book swap at Thursday lunchtime. Show up with a well-worn book you’re willing to part with and come away with a pre-loved book from someone else.
🍰 There’s an event at the Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre on Saturday exploring the current research into Liverpool University’s wealth and historic slavery links, which also asks which stories researchers should highlight. It’s free to attend and includes cake by local cheesecake connoisseurs Desserts by Dre.
Photo of the week
Street photographer and Post reader Phil Challinor shot this after Liverpool’s victory parade on 29th May.
Our favourite reads
An interesting feature in The Times about the restoration of 20 Forthlin Road, the tiny council house in Allerton where Paul McCartney grew up, and the wider efforts of the National Trust to highlight Britain’s more unusual cultural treasures. Director-General Hilary McGrady says she is trying to reach beyond the organisation’s “traditional white, middle-class, middle-aged membership”, and talks about why the trust was criticised for purchasing the house in 1995.
A New Yorker review of the work of Liverpool film director Terence Davies writes that his latest film Benediction seems “wrenched from his very soul” and draws some interesting links between the lives of Davies and the subject of the biopic, Siegfried Sassoon. “As a gay man who has spoken of his unease at being gay, as a lapsed Catholic whose religion was a ‘scar’ on his life, Davies seems to speak with Sassoon in an offscreen dialogue of recognition and sympathy.”
Our sister newsletter The Mill ran a brilliant long read by Michael Unger, a longtime Post reader and former editor of The Liverpool Daily Post back in the 1980s. He writes about the day of the IRA bomb in Manchester 21 years ago. “The only major question mark lay over the bomb disposal squad and where they were based. There had been a political decision to have the squad based in Liverpool as this was deemed a stronger Irish centre. But in reality, Liverpool was more of an Irish safe haven and only one small device had gone off there many years earlier at a job centre — and it wasn’t even certain that this had been an IRA initiative.”
There’s a moving profile of Jihyun Park in The Telegraph, a North Korean woman who escaped to China in 1998, only to be repatriated and imprisoned in a detention centre, where she was forced to drag a plough around a field barefoot. “People routinely dropped dead around her; women miscarried while being forced to run up mountains.” When she suffered a serious foot infection, she was sent to hospital and abandoned at a police station, giving her the opportunity to escape. Park was smuggled out to China and was eventually housed in Liverpool before settling in Bury.
Letters from readers
I am a 79yr old widower, recently bereaved in January, hobbled across the city centre on an aimless adventure, found myself on the ferry. What a smashing sense of relief. I enjoyed reading this article; the first in my subscription and I am impressed. Thank you ‘A day in the life of the Mersey ferry’, Frank Westwell
My favourite article yet. Great read, and nice to see Tony well — haven’t seen him on the Lane in years ‘The people’s poet of Lark Lane’, Chris Morris
Incredibly inspiring story. It does make me think how life without alcohol would be ‘A sober night out in Liverpool’, Steve Findlay