West Midlands Trains Attempts Media Spin – But Fails

West Midlands Railway Class 172 at Kenilworth

West Midlands Trains issued a press release about its additional £20m investment in services – despite the fact that the Department for Transport beat them to it – demanding £20m.

On Sunday morning, the Department for Transport released a missive outlining the fact that they had insisted that West Midlands Trains invest £20 million in timetable improvements, recruiting new train drivers and offering passengers compensation for poor service.

The DFT went so far as to publicly issue ultimatums to West Midlands Trains, by highlighting that the Transport Secretary demands a rapid introduction of a plan to “improve services that passengers rely on”, and that the government taking action to “address poor performance of West Midlands Trains”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps went on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show and laid out a stark warning to train operators across the country, West Midlands Trains (WMT) will be required to spend an extra £20 million on improving services for passengers after badly breaching its performance targets..

Passengers across the West Midlands, who use West Midlands Railway and London Northwestern services, will benefit from the additional funding, which will be invested in delivering timetable improvements and recruiting new train drivers to tackle staff shortages. They will also continue to be offered compensation for poor service with discounts on season tickets and off-peak fares.

The Department for Transport has made clear that operators should consider this step a warning that poor performance impacting on passengers and the failure to meet contractual obligations will be met with a firm response.

Shapps said: “One of my priorities is getting the trains to run on time, and as a commuter myself I understand all too well the frustration caused by endless delays and cancellations.

“West Midlands Trains have failed to fulfil their obligations – to their franchise agreement and, most importantly, to their passengers.

“The action we’re taking means they must invest in rapidly improving services, so that passengers have reliable, punctual trains they can rely on.”

West Midlands Railway Spin

Meanwhile, as the Transport Secretary is appearing on the television, West Midlands Railway issued their own press statement, boldly announcing their £20 million investment, and even going so far as to claim that it was “agreed” with the Department for Transport, rather than demanded as is the case.

Julian Edwards, managing director of West Midlands Trains, said: “Our performance in the second half of last year was simply unacceptable and we apologise to all our customers for this. Passengers can be assured we have developed a robust recovery plan which builds on our recent improved reliability.

“It is right we continue to compensate our customers and we will shortly confirm further discounts covering February half-term and beyond. This is on top of the season ticket and summer discounts we have already implemented.

“We have held detailed discussions with the West Midlands Mayor and others to ensure this extra investment – over and above our original £1billion franchise commitment – benefits all our customers and restores the reliable rail service they deserve.

“We are fully focused on achieving this as quickly as possible. Every issue cannot be solved overnight and we thank our customers for their patience while we fix their service.”

What is really quite concerning is why West Midlands Railway, even with their Managing Director’s public apology, deem it necessary to spin the story as a positive for the company.

What is even more concerning, is that the press release from West Midlands Railway is in fact misleading, and does not mention anywhere that the company are at the end stages of their contract – a remedial plan – before it is stripped of its franchise.

The Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street sat on the fence between the DfT and West Midlands Railway on Sunday, saying; “West Midlands Trains’ performance at the back end of last year was absolutely woeful and it is only right – as I requested – that the firm must pay the price financially. I am also pleased to see this money will be re-invested locally to help restore the reliable service that passengers want and deserve.

“Since I issued my ultimatum in December of improve or lose the franchise, WMT has got better and performance is statistically on the up. But I still have very serious concerns and, alongside the DfT, will be keeping the firm under strict review. I will not hesitate to ask for the franchise to be stripped if performance slips again.”

Since their May 2019 timetable change WMT’s performance has deteriorated to such an extent that they have exceeded breach level on delay minutes and cancellations franchise agreement targets. Under the terms of their contract, WMT are required to agree a ‘remedial plan’ to ensure that performance recovers.

So, depsite the West Midlands Railway spin, it really is last-chance saloon for the franchise operators Abellio, JR East and Mitsui Group.

So, either on Sunday evening, or on Monday – watch out for which version appears in the local media, West Midlands Trains’ “all’s-well” version, or the DfT’s “last-chance saloon” version. If the former turns up anywhere as the story, it will be a stark failure of journalism.