Train operator Merseyrail has offered an update on when the new £500m train fleet will come into service on the Liverpool city region network. Tony McDonough reports
Merseyrail has offered confirmation that the new £500m train fleet is likely to come into service on its network by the end of this year.
This week Merseyrail Electrics, the franchise holder of the Merseyrail network, published its annual accounts covering the 12 months to January 8, 2022. The company has returned to profitability after passenger numbers plummeted during the pandemic.
It is reporting a pre-tax profit of £2.7m for the period, against a £2.5m loss the year before. However it is still well down on the last pre-pandemic pre-tax profit which was £18.1m. Turnover for the year is up from £150m to £163m.
In its annual report Merseyrail says the new 52-strong fleet of trains will come into service on the network during its current financial year, which ends on January 7, 2023. Technically it means it could still be the beginning of next year although more likely it will be later in 2022.
First announced in 2016, the new trains were acquired by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority from Swiss manufacturer Stadler. Platform upgrades were started three years ago and the testing of the trains began in 2021.
Despite delays in preparation work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hoped the new 777-class trains would be brought into public service on the network at some point in 2022 and now that is looking more likely.
It means the current 56-strong fleet of trains, that have now been in service for more than 40 years, will continue calling at Merseyrail’s 68 stations for the next few months. Upgrade work on platforms and signalling, which began in 2018 will continue until the second half of the current financial year.
In the accounts it said: “Our partnership with Stadler and Merseytravel saw delivery of seven 777 class units during 2022 and testing of these units on the Merseyrail network is under way. A number of common outstanding issues across all units need to be resolved prior to entry into service.
“Despite the challenges relating to the introduction of the new fleet into service, real progress has been made in many areas with train testing on the Merseyrail network now well advanced and power supply upgrade is due for completion in FY 2023 (financial year).”
As part of the testing of the trains, battery technology was trialled. This was declared a success with trains able to run up to 20 miles without recharging. This means the network can be extended without the heavy expense of electrification.
Work has already started on the new £80m Headbolt Lane station at Kirkby. Battery-powered trains will serve the station and it will also offer a link for services to Wigan and Manchester. Battery technology means services to Skelmersdale, Wrexham, Warrington and Runcorn are now also possible.
The new trains include free wi-fi, wider seats and space for up to 50% more passengers. They will also feature pioneering sliding step technology which will allow unassisted access for wheelchair users and those with bikes or buggies – a first for the UK.
All of the trains will be more energy efficient and the Combined Authority estimates the investment will boost the city region by £70m a year. They will also come equipped with wifi, plug sockets and USB charging points.
Merseyrail Electrics is a joint venture between Serco Group and Abellio and its 25-year franchise to operate the network expires in 2028. In the latest accounts it also said a dispute between the company and rail union RMT over the provision of a second person on the new trains was still to be settled. This was the subject of a bitter dispute in 2019.
In the accounts, Merseyrail says: “Discussions with the RMT with regards to the second person on the train are progressing… Merseyrail will continue its commitment to reaching a resolution with the RMT through negotiated discussions.”
On Thursday, Merseyrail also said it would reinstate 15-minute services across the Northern and Wirral lines from Monday, May 2. At various points during the pandemic services frequencies were cut due to falling demand and staff absence. The changes are as follows:
- Southport line – every 15 minutes from the start to the end of service.
- All other lines (except Ellesmere Port) – every 15 minutes between approximately 7am and
7pm, with a 30-minute service operating outside of these hours.
- Ellesmere Port line – every 30 minutes from the start to the end of service every day with
additional trains running between 7.15am and 8.30am for the morning peak and 4.30pm and 5.30pm for
the evening peak Monday to Friday.
- A 30-minute service will operate on Sundays across all lines.