• Wed. Nov 29th, 2023

My train to meet the transport secretary was cancelled, things need to change


Nov 17, 2023

There was a grim sense of inevitability as I glanced up.


I scanned the screen of departures information. New Brighton on time, Ormskirk on time, Liverpool Central on time, West Kirkby on time, Headbolt Lane….cancelled.

Now I am not a regular traveller on this particular Merseyrail line. I have my own, well vocalised issues on the increasingly cramped Hunts Cross line.

But I have reported extensively on the woes faced by Kirkby commuters since the shiny new £80m station opened at Headbolt Lane last month.

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Now let's be clear, the creation and opening of a new station is a really positive thing. It's great to see serious investment going into our local rail network and the facility should encourage many more people to travel by train.

But it is also fair to say that the first few weeks of the new station have been nothing short of disastrous.

Every day social media has been awash with furious and frustrated commuters finding themselves late for work, missing appointments or forced to alight their train a long way from home.

The big problem is related to the new battery-operated trains that form part of the £500m new fleet of Class 777 vehicles. While most of the Merseyrail network uses a third rail to supply electricity to the trains, this only extends as far as Kirkby on that particular line -with the battery power then used for the vehicles continuing to the next stop, the new Headbolt Lane.

The roll-out of any new technology is bound to come with some teething issues, but transport chiefs accept that no one imagined things would have been quite this chaotic in the opening stages of the new station.

Having heard the understandable groans of Headbolt Lane commuters for some time now, it felt apt that I would join them in this transport mire. The problem of frequently cancelled trains to the new station is greatly exacerbated by the fact the current services are only running every 30 minutes – meaning at times this is stripped back to an hourly service.

What made my plight all the more ironic was that this particular cancellation affected my journey to the official opening of said new Headbolt Lane station featuring none other than the Transport Secretary, Mark Harper.

Mayor Steve Rotheram with Transport Secretary Mark Harper at Headbolt Lane station

After a brief caustic chuckle to myself, I headed down to the platform to begin my now 40 minute wait for the next train. This gave me plenty of time to fire off some angry tweets about the situation, strengthening my position as the least favourite son of the poor souls who run Merseyrail's social media accounts.

Once the train finally arrived, with me now feeling several years older, it was a very busy one with standing room only. The new trains look and feel great to travel on and I'm hopeful that when these problems are ironed out they will be an enormous asset for the Liverpool City Region. But at present, the situation is not good enough.

Once I finally got to Headbolt Lane, I put this to Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram, who agreed, stating: "It's nowhere near good enough. We've got this new technology, which means we have a shoe that is connected to the live third rail and comes up at a point to connect to the battery powered trains.

"There is a connectivity issue between the software and the mechanics of that shoe lifting and they are the teething problems. We said there would be teething problems when introducing brand new trains, that's expected. But this is a specific problem and so we've got a technician on every train to diagnose these problems.

"On one day we had 52 cancellations, it was a huge problem for us, now we only have the occasional trains that don't run and we should see those figures going in the right direction. Stadler have committed to resolving this as quickly as possible and that is why we have these technicians on every train."

It's true that the situation has improved from its chaotic nadir a few weeks ago, but commuters will still feel the the prospect of a half hourly service that is still hit by regular cancellations is nowhere near good enough. Things must improve quickly.

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