The Tyne and Wear Metro slumped to its lowest-ever level of performance last month.

Just 61% of Metro trains turned up as scheduled in the four weeks to December 9 – meaning that more than a third of services failed to arrive on time, which operator Nexus classes as being either within three minutes later or 30 seconds earlier than timetabled.

That number is the worst punctuality figure in the network’s history and came just weeks after passengers were warned to brace themselves for a period of unprecedented disruption – as engineers battle to keep the Metro’s increasingly dilapidated train carriages running, before making the long-awaited transition to a new £362m fleet.

Transport bosses blamed adverse weather conditions and the unreliability of the existing trains, which have been running since 1980 and are well beyond their 30-year shelf life, for the problems in November and early December.

However, performance has improved considerably since then, with punctuality rising back above 80% in the last month.

Kevin Dickinson, from the Sort Out the Metro passenger campaign group, said that the record low level of performance “isn’t acceptable by anyone’s standard”.

The figure of only 61% of trains arriving on time between November 12 and December 9 was a drop from 63% in the month before, and significantly lower than the 80% recorded at the same time in 2022. 

Since mid-December, punctuality has improved to 81% – though this is still below Nexus’ target of 89.25%.

Metro operations director Kevin Storey said: “Working with Stadler, which maintains the Metro fleet for us, we have introduced specialist heaters designed for use in the airline industry to keep the fleet warm through cold weather and this has helped drive up train availability over the last month. It’s just one of the steps we are taking to improve fleet reliability.

“Punctuality in the rail industry always suffers in the autumn due to low rail adhesion, but this was made worse for us by the lack of availability caused by the ageing fleet because it makes it harder to get back on timetable when you don’t have spare trains available. Metro actually operated 90% of its scheduled kilometres in that period, but I do understand the frustration caused when trains are late.

“The current Metro trains are over 40 years old and it’s an ongoing challenge to keep them in working order due to their age and the fact that spare parts are often obsolete. We have carefully reviewed our timetables to reflect current performance and improve punctuality as much as we can.

“But as we transition to the new fleet and face more disruption exacerbated by the winter months, we will aim to prioritise frequency over punctuality. The new Metro trains will be transformative for customers in terms of comfort and reliability, and we are looking forward to getting the first new ones into service.”

Nexus served Swiss manufacturer Stadler, which is building the new Metro fleet but is now also responsible for maintaining the existing trains, with a remedial notice last year amid a reliability crisis that left passengers fed up with regular cancellations and delays.

While almost three quarters of all Tyne and Wear Metro trains were broken at the height of that maintenance trouble early in 2023, service punctuality never dipped lower than a four-weekly average of 67.7% – notably better than the recent numbers.

Extra peak-time commuter trains were also scrapped from the Metro’s timetable last year due to a lack of working trains to fulfil the service.

It was hoped that the new train fleet, which should be far more reliable as well as boasting modern features like air conditioning, would start entering passenger service by the end of 2023.

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However, that start date has been repeatedly pushed back – with Nexus now aiming for an unspecified time in “early 2024” instead.

Mr Dickinson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that difficulties in maintaining the existing Metro trains were understood – but were “predictable” and that “neither Nexus nor Stadler seem to have been able to get on top of the problem”.

He added: “We have seen multiple reductions in timetable yet they are still unable to provide an effective service. We get regular reports of people being late for work and many have reverted to car or bus travel when it is available. 

“It’s sad to see the state of the service, performance isn’t acceptable by anyone’s standard and in addition we have seen delays to the introduction of new trains which means we are unlikely to see improvements for some time.”