Let the train take the strain? Not if you are heading for the airport

Arriving soon? Delays in reaching Manchester airport are annoying on planes, but exasperating on trains (Simon Calder)
Arriving soon? Delays in reaching Manchester airport are annoying on planes, but exasperating on trains (Simon Calder)

Among airports, Manchester stands out for its superb rail links – in theory, at least. But why would anyone ever risk using them in practice? It’s Sunday afternoon, and I am one of many passengers caught up in the shambles that is the UK’s failing rail system. I am trying to travel home from Manchester airport to London.

There are no direct trains, and three possible connections in a row have been cancelled. I managed to get a late-running Northern train to Wilmslow in Cheshire, with the promise of being able to change for a service to Crewe. That connection is currently 40 minutes late, oh, and will be terminating one stop short of Crewe, at Sandbach. It is also in the way of the following Transport for Wales train, which shows some promise of making it all the way to Crewe and beyond. But since both delayed trains are supposed to depart from platform 4 at the same instant, I am taking nothing for granted.

For anyone unlucky enough to be trying to reach Manchester airport by rail, rather than leave, Northern is warning: “DO NOT TRAVEL – customers travelling in the northwest please be aware there is a do not travel warning in place this evening due to significant disruption and cancellation, meaning later services will not be able to run.”

The blame is attributed to “high levels of train crew sickness and non-availability”. You might wonder about that last term: many staff for Northern in northwest England do not have Sundays as part of the working week. Successive governments could have fixed this, but chose not to do so.

With services dependent on “rest-day working”, when staff exercise their perfectly legitimate right not to work overtime, everything grinds to a halt. Which is just one of a growing number of reasons why travelling by train to an airport looks like the most reckless of beginnings to a holiday or business trip.

Manchester airport has direct links from across northern England as well as from Scotland’s two biggest cities. But the evidence I have seen from the past few days does not augur well for journeys this summer.

Consider last Thursday afternoon – for many rail firms, a peak spell for travellers and therefore with a heightened need for punctuality. Passengers from Newcastle hoping to reach Manchester for a teatime flight on Thursday can catch an LNER train just before 1pm, with a comfortable connection of almost half an hour at York before the onward TransPennine Express link to Manchester airport.

The first left Newcastle late and limped into York 30 minutes behind schedule. I understand several records (though not limbs, fortunately) were broken in the 100 metres hurdles, with baggage, from platform 5 to platform 10, as performed by the stressed passengers for Manchester airport

Once on board, they discovered their problems were only just beginning. Having started late, the pace slowed even further. Their train eventually arrived almost half an hour late at Manchester. TransPennine Express said a broken-down freight train was responsible.

You may well think: any plan involving a flight should have a lot more than 30 minutes’ slack. But the cumulative effect of uncertainty upon uncertainty could be enough to make travellers choose another mode of transport to reach Manchester – or simply use a different airport – next time.