The future of Metro at the heart of Tyneside public transport - debate chopped off at Newcastle City Council
A motion about the Metro dispute and its future was "guillotined" at Newcastle City Council. This is an important issue for many users of public transport - and those who might be tempted out of cars and onto rails if it were done right. Here's what two Liberal Democrats councillors would have said if they'd been allowed to :
Councillor Greg Stone, who leads for the Opposition on Transport matters would have said : This motion was submitted at a time when disruption on the Metro network as a result of the industrial dispute between Nexus and the unions was affecting a great many Metro passengers. It is encouraging that an outline agreement between management and staff representatives was secured on Dec 27th, and we await this being ratified in a ballot of union members. We all hope that agreement is forthcoming, and the risk of service disruption can be avoided.
However, the motion touches on wider issues which this council should discuss.
Performance on Metro has been worryingly unreliable in recent weeks and months.
Part of this is diminishing fleet reliability - on current performance there is an average of three units failing in service per day. Withdrawing them from service means more services are cancelled and longer delays. Despite the best efforts of the depot engineers, this trend will continue as the existing cars break down more frequently ahead of their replacement. Hopefully by 2024, although we are still not in a position where the new Metro units have been ordered, let alone built.
Part of this is diminishing driver availability. Driver shortages are leading to cancellations, particularly at weekends. There is a real problem in retaining drivers when heavy rail operators are recruiting trained drivers at greater salaries. This presents a significant challenge to Nexus and I accept they are taking steps to improve recruitment and conclude a pay deal.
Nevertheless, I feel it would be prudent to also have regard to Nexus's financial position. My understanding is that the proposed pay deal is likely to represent a departure from current Nexus budget plans. It is also my understanding that use of reserves in the next two years to achieve a balanced budget. I am aware that reassurances have recently been given that the forecast deficit is less severe than anticipated as a result of a revaluation of pension fund liabilities. I hope that this leads to a more sustainable budget going forward and this is not just a convenient accounting exercise.
Whilst I want to see industrial action minimised and an effective and reliable public transport system maintained, I remain concerned that significant pressure on Nexus budgets may have the undesirable result of cuts to public transport subsidised services in coming years.
At the same time the Transport Levy has been frozen, representing a real-terms cut to public transport funding by the Labour controlled Tyne and Wear authorities. There is an appreciable risk to public transport services if this is not tackled.
I am aware that the current governance arrangements for transport do not give Newcastle direct representation on the Joint Transport Committee, and so I feel that it is important that this issue is debated here in council and our views expressed.
I note that the position of Government is that further transport powers and funding are unlikely to be extended to the North East on the grounds that North and South of Tyne are unable to unite behind a single mayoral structure. This leaves our region without the powers on bus franchising which are being extended to Sheffield and Manchester.
The Lib Dem Opposition's view is that transport governance in the region has not improved under the new arrangements, and Metro's performance has not appreciably improved since operations were taken back in-house after the ending of the DB Regio contract. Farebox income is down, passenger numbers are down, and the passenger experience is worsening with services cancelled, delayed, or overcrowded.
If this level of service was being delivered by a privately owned franchise on the national rail network, I presume there would be calls from Labour politicians for the service to be taken back into public ownership. But it is no longer possible to blame a private operator for Metro shortcomings. We have a situation where under public control, reliability is not good and the budget context is not good either.
My question is what steps are Nexus and the Joint Transport Committee taking to address this? I look forward to this being addressed in the debate and appropriate representations being made to the North of Tyne Mayor. [Of course, Labour wasn't forced to answer this and we have little confidence that they will]
Councillor Robin Ashby would have said : I want to reiterate the imperative of Nexus not cutting back on capital spend in order to support revenue expenditure. And I have a suggestion about one of their key challenges as explained by their Managing Director to us last year.
That is, the poaching of drivers, particularly newly trained ones, by the heavy rail companies. My simple recommendation to Nexus is that all new contracts should include a clause that driver trainees will refund the costs of their training if they leave to work for another rail company within say a year. Obviously there's no way that the individual would pay it - but the rail companies would need to reckon on a "transfer fee" for all the time cost and effort Nexus put into recruitment and training. Indeed, it might even become a new revenue stream for Nexus.
When the Metro system was designed and built, it was around the concept of an integrated transport system.
Although such aspirations were destroyed when the Thatcher Government deregulated the buses, the infrastructure still exists.
Now that we have a climate emergency, and are feeling that it is realistic to ask the Government for £100 million to improve air quality in the city centre, maybe we need an imaginative revisit of the past.
Nexus is already considering a £7 million programme of interchange improvements. This must be sustained and even augmented - perhaps our requested £100 million windfall from the Government can help that.
The use of electric or ultra low emission bus shuttle services from interchanges, for instance, Regent Centre down the heavily polluted Gosforth High Street, should be an early aspiration. Buy a parking ticket, or get off an X bus from out of town, get a free and frequent bus ride to and from the city centre. And the same services could be linked to out of town car park and ride facilities like that on Great Park. Such a system has been working in Denver Colorado since I visited there 25 years ago, so why not here too?