Metro boss who moved from Australia to take top job just before pandemic reflects on the system's 40th anniversary year which turned out to be its bleakest
It was supposed to be a year of celebration for the Tyne and Wear Metro – but 2020 turned out to be one of its bleakest.
The rail network’s 40th anniversary started brightly, with the reveal of a long-awaited new fleet of trains soon to be built in Switzerland.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the Metro into the most tumultuous period in its history.
Passenger numbers collapsed overnight as the nation went into lockdown, there was talk of mothballing the network, a shortage of drivers has forced winter timetables to be cut, and transport bosses are grappling with a cash crisis that could have implications for years to come.
For Metro operator Nexus’ chief operating officer Martin Kearney, who swapped Australia for the North East at the beginning of the year, it has been a baptism of fire.
Just days into his new job, the Yorkshireman was basking in the hopeful atmosphere created by a first look at a modern set of £362million trains that will breathe new life into the Metro from 2023.
Two months later, though, he was grappling with how hundreds of Nexus staff could work from home, reducing train services, and urgently ordering face masks and hand sanitiser.
Shutting Metro down would have been ‘stupid’
It took more than a month for the Government to commit to covering the Metro’s losses, with the network losing close to £1million a week as passenger levels dropped by 95%, and Mr Kearney says the prospect of shutting the system down entirely was discussed – though he never believed it would happen.
He said: “What would happen if we replaced the Metro with buses? That is just a stupid question, for me.
“You would not be able to resource the amount of buses needed to do it. Sometimes that is a lack of understanding from people not in the area, from people who need to come and see what we are talking about and see what this means to the people of the North East.
“But I always stayed optimistic, I never once considered that it would happen.”
He added: “Maybe I just looked on the bright side, but personally I never considered it would be a reality.
“The repercussions of doing it for the whole of the region would be massive.”
Getting Metro back on the rails
While the Metro now has Government funding to keep it running, the cash support is only guaranteed until April – and a worst case scenario forecast has predicted a £30million blackhole if the grant disappears and ticket sales remain low.
Nexus chiefs must submit a recovery plan to the Treasury in January outlining how the Metro can be put back on a sustainable footing, including higher ticket prices and cuts to services as well as a strategy to encourage passengers to come back.
The network is already running a reduced winter timetable due to driver shortages caused by a Covid-enforced cancellation of a training school, adding to long-standing problems with Metro drivers being poached by rival train companies offering better pay.
Mr Kearney says he intends to have a full schedule restored by April and has warned that making permanent cuts to services will damage the Metro’s Covid recovery.
He said: “The Government wants us to look at ensuring we are delivering the right amount of services, you can’t blame them for that – it is absolutely the right question.
“But I also don’t want to be on a downward spiral – reduced services reduces customers, reduces services, reduces customers. I don’t want to reduce services, I want to encourage customers back. It is important that we stay positive about what we can achieve.
“Is it nervy? Yes it is, because the Government has not got the money. But I am staying optimistic. What we provide here is critical for the area and the real answer is to improve what we have got, not reduce what we have got.”
Keeping optimistic for the future
Despite the colossal challenges and mounting problems that have dominated the agenda since Boris Johnson first ordered people to stay home in March, Mr Kearney retains the sense of optimism that was palpable back in January.
While the Metro’s 40th birthday has not gone as planned, there have been some major steps forward, like the completion of a new train depot in Howdon and the Nexus learning centre in South Shields.
Customer satisfaction levels are at their highest point since May 2014 and, with a reduced timetable allowing extra time for maintenance, the current fleet of ageing trains has “exceeded expectations compared to previous years” in terms of the number of kilometres per fault.
Funding was also awarded for the Metro Flow project – twinning single-track sections of the network between Pelaw and South Shields to boost capacity, increasing the frequency of Metro trains to one every 10 minutes.
And to ensure people do come back to the Metro when the delivery of Covid vaccines makes it safer to do so in large numbers, Mr Kearney says the heightened standards of cleanliness and punctuality must not be lost.
He said: “We got to 50% of normal customer journeys in September with social distancing measures still in place. I need removal of social distancing for us to get past that.
“The Metro has never been as clean and it has never performed so well. Once the social distancing is removed, come and use it.
“We need a clear government message. Back in March it was essential journeys and key workers only, and it damages the reputation – transport operators have never seen anything firm which says public transport is not safe to use. I think we would all agree it is safe to use, it is cleaner than usual, social distancing is in place.
“Not only are we going to improve our customer experience, we are going to build our customer bases back with the confidence that the higher levels of cleanliness and maintenance are continuing. So there are positives you can take from this year.”