The Tyne and Wear Metro is to operate a reduced frequency winter timetable while it catches up with driver training schools that were halted earlier this year due to lockdown.
Nexus, the public body which owns and manages Metro, will introduce the new timetable from Sunday 29 November and it will remain in place until March 2021.
Customers will still have access to a good level of service frequency across the network, say Nexus, with trains every seven minutes on weekdays from 7am to 6pm through Newcastle city centre and Gateshead.
Training across the UK rail industry was unable to take place during the first lockdown because national assessment centres that put candidates through the mandatory aptitude tests had to be closed.
This has impacted on the availability of Metro train crews, which is why a winter timetable is needed while 30 new recruits who started in September go through the six-month driver training school - the largest single intake since Metro began in 1980.
Metro Operations Director, Chris Carson, said: “Reducing services is the last thing that we want to do, and it’s not a decision that we take lightly, but training has been so severely impacted by lockdown that we need to implement a winter timetable.
“I apologise in advance for the inconvenience this is going to cause to our customers.
“The reality is that train crew availability is lower than what we need it to be. The extra staff that we were due to bring in were unable to go through the required aptitude tests when national assessment centres were closed in March.
“Since the testing centres re-opened in August we do now have a record number of new drivers in training. These training schools got underway in September and they will take six months to complete.
“Customers will still have access to a good level of frequency across the network. On busier weekdays between 7am and 6pm the timetable will not differ that much from what we currently have in place, and in our busy central corridor through Newcastle and Gateshead there will be trains every seven minutes.
“Once we complete the current driver training schools we aim to revert back to a full timetable in the Spring.”
The Metro winter timetable:
• Monday – Friday: A 15-30 minute service 5am-7am; A 15 minute service 7am-6pm (which means a train every 7 minutes between South Gosforth and Pelaw); A 20 minute service 6pm until the end of the day.
• Saturdays: A 15-30 minute service 5am-9am; A 24 minute service 9am-6pm (which means a train every 12 minutes between South Gosforth and Pelaw); A 15-30 minute service from 6pm until the end of the day.
• Sundays: A 30 minute service all day (which means a train every 15 minutes between South Gosforth and Pelaw).
When winter timetable starts passengers are advised to plan their journey in advance and check train times before travelling.
Nexus embarked on its biggest ever driver training school in September after an enhanced recruitment programme was halted due to the Covid-19 crisis.
The trainee Metro drivers were originally recruited last year but then had to waiting for the opportunity to start their school. They are undertaking a six-month period of training and will be ready to go into service in March and April 2021.
A group of 16 trainees had been due to start in May of this year, meaning that they would have been ready to start driving by November, but that was postponed due to lockdown.
The cancellation of that driver school meant that the Metro traincrew establishment is forecast to be 10% below requirements in December 2020 and 13% below requirements in January 2021.
Nexus doubled its annual driver trainee intake in September 2019 from 24 to 48. This allowed for six training schools to run per year.
This new training programme was being fulfilled up until the UK was locked down in March due to the coronavirus outbreak – which is why trainee intakes were enhanced again to catch up.