Northern message

Photo: Tony Miles

A message about disruption in June at Wilmslow station.

UK: Rail industry leaders are urging the next government to address the need for a ‘seven-day railway’ after the election on July 4, as severe disruption continues to affect several train operators on Sundays.

Throughout June, parts of the country saw few if any trains running on Sundays, and the scale of the problem attracted national media attention. State-run Northern Trains has been particularly severely hit, with 282 trains cancelled across its network on June 30. Several operators reported that they could not run anything like a normal timetable on the preceding weekends of June 15-16 and 22-23, prompting industry leaders to once again call for the current reliance on voluntary overtime from traincrew to be addressed by the next government.

Northern conductor (Photo Northern)

Staff shortages have caused acute problems at Northern Trains on recent Sundays.

The crisis reached a nadir on June 16 — Fathers’ Day and the date of the England men’s football team’s first match at the Euro 2024 tournament. Problems were reported across much of England: Northern issued a ‘do not travel’ alert at 16.40 after around 150 services were cancelled, while Great Western Railway, LNER, Govia Thameslink Railway and West Midlands Trains also suffered disruption.

On GWR, passengers heading from Penzance to London endured a 7 h gap between trains as the company cancelled 22 services in total; LNER announced late on June 15 that it had cancelled 13 services on the following day, including eight between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh.

‘Perfect storm’

Northern told its customers that the disruption was primarily caused by ‘high levels of train crew sickness and non-availability’. The situation is being exacerbated by a local dispute with drivers’ union ASLEF, which has seen members taking ‘action short of a strike’ — effectively an overtime ban — between June 1 and July 27, further affecting the availability of staff.

Stories in the national press have explicitly linked the traincrew shortages with events such as the football or Fathers’ Day. This message is echoed in some of the comments senior managers at various operators have made to Rail Business UK, describing the June problems as ‘a perfect storm’ for operators where traincrew are not obliged to work on Sundays, such as GWR and WMT.

Varying terms

For Northern, the situation is even more complex because of the myriad of contractual terms that apply to its drivers and onboard staff across the geographically diverse business. These varying T&Cs reflect inherited arrangements from Northern’s predecessor businesses and those of staff working on routes that have been amalgamated into the Northern network on a piecemeal basis over recent years.

Rail Business UK understands that at least three sets of T&Cs are used for traincrew at the company. This means that around half of its drivers — primarily those based on the western side of the Pennines — do not have Sundays within their working week, while none of Northern’s guards and conductors are required to work Sundays. Those working in the former First North Western operating area have greater flexibility to opt out of Sunday shifts than those in the eastern zone.

One senior manager explained to Rail Business UK that on the eastern side ‘there is an agreement that [conductors] do have to work their booked turn; however on the west [side] they don’t — they can decline it with seven days’ notice.’ On June 16 a ‘high percentage’ declined to take their booked shift, ‘and there is absolutely nothing that the company can do about that. Managers are certainly not going to force people to come into work — it is a matter of agreed Terms & Conditions.’

Northern Class 150 DMU at Salford Crescent station

Photo: Tony Miles

Terms of employment for traincrew vary markedly between the western and eastern sides of Northern’s operating area; this Sprinter DMU is seen at Salford Crescent working a train on a former First North Western route.

The challenge facing Northern for its driver availability is slightly more nuanced. According to social media posts ostensibly made by Northern staff, drivers have a commitment to work their booked shifts on Sundays. However, because it is not part of the working week there are no spare turns, which means if a driver calls in sick, there is no cover for that train. Staff also report that ASLEF’s ‘action short of a strike’ covering its members at Northern means that drivers will not use their rest days on Sundays.

Nevertheless, while there is hope that the local disputes affecting Northern’s drivers could be resolved quickly, a longer-term solution is also needed. This will almost certainly mean addressing the bigger issue of Sunday working.

Government pressure

Resolving the voluntary overtime issue has been at the heart of the long-running disputes between the government, the operating companies and the railway trade unions.

As part of its railway reform plans, the government had hoped to formalise Sundays as part of the working week by changing T&Cs across the sector. It is worth noting that at some operators, such as LNER, drivers already have Sundays as part of their contracted work week, although this has not prevented local industrial disputes and high staff sickness causing disruption to services.

Last year, Transport Secretary Mark Harper insisted that ‘modernising working practices’ must be part of the reform of the industry, insisting that ‘Sunday services are essentially dependent on drivers volunteering for overtime. This means, despite our best efforts, we can’t run a reliable seven-day-a-week railway on which customers can depend.’

Rail Business UK notes that throughout the post-British Rail period, operators have benefitted from using Sunday overtime payments as a means to limit their overheads such as pension contributions, while staff found it beneficial from a work-life flexibility standpoint. Some high-growth, high-yield inter-city operators could afford to ‘buy out’ the issue by formalising Sunday working, but other operators concluded that the implications for their cost base were too uncertain. This was compounded by the fact that in the pre-Covid franchising era, ‘pricing in’ the elimination of Rest Day Working would almost certainly have made a bid too expensive for the Department for Transport to select. Hence the question has remained unresolved for years, as the problems at Northern reflect.

Resolution must be a priority

Speaking to Rail Business UK, one senior manager expressed hope that whatever the outcome of the General Election on July 4, the next government would see the resolution of this long-standing problem as a priority. ‘This is an issue that will have to be addressed. We know the demand for services is there, but we don’t serve that demand at the moment because conditions aren’t right’, they said.

LNER Azuma Leeds - still

Drivers with LNER already have Sundays as part of their contracted working week.

Others in the industry note that pre-election ‘purdah’ has made it difficult for ongoing issues to be discussed in public. Nevertheless, one industry leader summed up the challenge by insisting that ‘managers and operational staff want to deliver a good service on Sundays but the route to this happening remains unclear. Even when there is no industrial action, there are a disproportionate amount of cancellations on a Sunday, because there’s nothing contractually to build it into [staff] rosters.

‘In northwest England in particular, it’s effectively a volunteer-worked railway on Sundays. Even if there were no external events pulling traincrew away, there are still risks that Northern would see more cancellations than the rest of the week because there isn’t the establishment to support somebody being off sick.

‘We really want to work with the unions and the next government to make sure we can get the right agreement to be able to deliver a Sunday service closer to the one we put out on weekdays. Then we want to increase it over time, because the demand absolutely is there’, the insider insists.