Following changes to the Giant Spectacular plan, Merseyrail Managing Director Andy Heath spoke with BBC Radio Merseyside about decisions on Merseyrail services.
BBC Radio Merseyside: We’re going to talk about something that’s got people’s backs up it’s fair to say, because the giants are just around the corner, they’re here on Friday 5th October which no doubt means it’ll be pretty busy in the city centre. But there’s been frustration aired by people outside the city who were hoping to make their journey in to see them on the train, as Merseyrail recently announced plans to close nearly 30 stations across the weekend.
Well the Managing Director of Merseyrail, Andy Heath has been explaining to me, how it’ll all work.
AH: This is the third time the giants have come to Liverpool, and as experienced in 2014 and 2012, the number of passengers will increase by about 250%. Instead of having 100,000 passenger journeys a day, it’ll go up to about 250,000, so with that comes the challenge of capacity. In 2014, there was lots of criticism of Merseyrail in terms of the capacity we provided. A lot of the trains operated in three car formations, and that resulted in customers being ‘left behind’ at stations as the trains were crowded. So what we’ve taken the opportunity to do this year is to review the train plan, and what we’re looking to do is to increase capacity on all of our routes. So for example, on the Southport line, and the line from Hooton into Liverpool, capacity will increase by about 200%, likewise on the West Kirby and New Brighton lines, capacity will increase by about 50%, but to do that, we’ve had to close some stations, for two reasons. One is to actually ensure we can deploy the carriages, because of course the journey times would be quicker. Secondly, this will allow us to redeploy staff at stations to help with the increased passenger numbers we expect on the network over the three days.
BBC: So how have you taken the decision to close certain stations – why are certain stations more important than others for example?
AH: Well, it’s not a question of stations being more important than others. Obviously, we value all of our customers, but what we’ve looked at is stations in terms of footfall. We’ve also looked in terms of alternative transport arrangements in the vicinity of that station, and also, a lot of the stations that are open have a number of car parking spaces available, and to put that into context, as I said previously, we average around 100,000 customer journeys a day, and the stations we’re closing is nearly 50% of our stations, but this impacts only 14% of our passengers. And whilst we apologise for the impact on those customers we have to look on how we transport that large number of passengers over the course of the three days.
BBC: What I’m struggling to get my head around is, I was looking at the Northern Line for example, Sandhills, Bank Hall and Bootle Oriel Road are all closed, Bootle New Strand, Seathforth, Waterloo and Crosby are all open, so you’ve got a long line of them closed, and a long line of them open. They don’t seem to be spaced out?
AH: Well, they’re not spaced out, as I said previously, they’re based on the passengers we’re loading at those stations. For example, when a train leaves Southport on any day of the giants, it’s probable that we could actually fill the train at Southport, which means there could be no capacity to accommodate people further down the line. What we’ve taken account in the train plan is to ensure we can leave some carriages free, so that when we hit a raft of stations, we’ve got the space to carry people. As I say, it’s a significant challenge. I’ve been at Merseyrail for 20 years now, and these are probably the busiest days we’ve ever experienced, and with that, comes the challenge of the number of customers.
BBC: Sandhills will be closed when Liverpool play Manchester City, so how will fans get to the match?
AH: What we’re doing first of all in terms of Sandhills being closed, which is based on the parameters I spoke about previously, is that customers will change trains at Moorfields, and what we’re looking to do, based on feedback we’ve had from our customers, is to review the situation in terms of how we manage how to get people to the ground.
BBC: So how will they get to the ground?
AH: That’s being looked at now internally, we’ll have more information on that in the next few days.
BBC: So if I’m going to match from the north of the region, I’d have to change at Moorfields and get a Soccerbus or something, but the point is, there’s no station close to the ground.
AH: In terms of looking at it, we need to take into account, is it a simple solution in terms of redeploying the Soccerbus into Moorfields for example, but there will be challenges there, because of course, the city centre will be full, so the accessibility of buses will of course be a challenge. We will look at the train plan, in terms of the appropriate stations, and announce that in the next few days.
BBC: You’ve changed your mind on a couple of stations, Hightown and Bache, what was the thinking behind changing your mind on those?
AH: Well first of all, in terms of Bache, we’re operating a shuttle service between Chester and Hooton, and it’s quite clear in the train plan that we have got the time in terms of capacity available and the amount of units we have running to call at Bache without impacting the timetable so it can be done comfortably. In terms of Hightown, we’ve recognised feedback from our customers that there’s a limited bus service, so in which case, if we didn’t call at Hightown, what I said previously in terms of other available modes of transport, it just doesn’t sit right, so we’ve changed the decision based on customer feedback.
BBC: What about commuters, especially those paying for a weekly or monthly pass and their station on a working day isn’t open, are they going to be compensated and how are they going to get to work?
AH: Well in terms of customers who have prepaid before this was announced, so particularly our monthly and our annual ticket holders, should they be at a station that is closed, we ask them to write into our customer relations, and we will look to compensate them, should they not travel to another station to catch the train from there. In terms of our daily and our weekly ticket holders, they of course now have notice, so when they look to buy the ticket, they will know the stopping pattern on those days.
BBC: With regard to the strikes by the RMT Union on Northern Trains on the Saturday, could that have a knock-on effect to the Merseyrail services, making them even busier?
AH: Indeed, certainly in terms of where we connect into Northern services, particularly at locations such as Kirkby, Ormskirk and also Liverpool South Parkway, and that’s again, another reason as to why we’ve look to ensure we have increase capacity to be able to cope with the numbers of customers who will look to travel. We ask customers to check our website for further details on the timetable, and I’d ask them to take time in planning their journey, and hopefully we’ll get everyone there as safely and as punctually as we can.