RAIL bosses have been accused of 'sheer incompetence' after admitting that East Lancashire's long-awaited faster train service to Manchester has been delayed by at least another six months.
Network Rail has confirmed signalling work on the Todmorden Curve will not be completed until February with the service now not starting until May next year.
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The route to Manchester will start in Blackburn and stop at Accrington and Burnley's Manchester Road station.
The service will slash rail times between Burnley and Manchester Victoria to around only 45 minutes and is expected to give the local economy a massive boost.
The latest setback follows the announcement last year that there wasn't a diesel train available for the new service to start in May and was put back until December, despite the completion of the track.
It has emerged that while signals were installed at the south-western end of the curve, allowing a new Todmorden to Manchester service to be launched, the job was not completed around the junction heading from Burnley.
Angry council bosses in Burnley have insisted that each month of delay is costing the borough's economy an estimated £1million and they have urged that 'heads must roll'.
Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle, who is demanding answers from Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin over the fresh delay, said: "All they had to do was install two sets of signals, and I went to see the first ones put in place, in January or February, and walked the line with officials.
"They told me it would be finished by April or May and there will be a riot if this is the case now. It is a complete mess by Network Rail."
Pendle peer Lord Tony Greaves had questioned government transport minister Baroness Kramer in the House of Lords over the possibility that the scheme could be delayed again.
He said: "This is shambolic incompetence on the part of Network Rail. It is ludicrous that a service that is meant to have started last Christmas is being delayed by another six months. It's just crazy.
"If this was the south-east or London, where they will spend billions on new local railway lines, we would have already had our trains.
"But because people see us as a little backwater, in the north-west and East Lancashire, then this is what happens."
Burnley Council chief executive Steve Rumbelow said: “This is completely unacceptable and to say we are angry and disappointed is an understatement.
“We are absolutely clear – this further delay is down to the sheer incompetence of Network Rail and Northern Rail.
"We expect them to deliver what they’ve been paid for. They have been paid almost £6.5 million to deliver a railway line that’s going nowhere at the moment. How ridiculous.
“We expect the Department of Transport not to simply accept excuses from Network Rail and Northern Rail but, alongside us, demand they deliver what they promised.
"The Government talks about how important economic development is – we’ve calculated that this rail link would benefit the local economy by around £12 million a year. Every month’s delay is holding our local economy back.
“We need a quality working service direct to Manchester. The residents and businesses of Pennine Lancashire deserve nothing less. We will be having further discussions with our partners as a matter of urgency.”
Council leader Coun Mark Townsend added: "I’m deeply annoyed to hear this news. The incompetence of Network Rail and Northern Rail beggars belief."
The delay has been revealed as Lancashire County Council leader Coun Jennifer Mein had approved proposals to sponsor the new route for the first three years of its operation.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The Todmorden Curve scheme is being managed by Lancashire County Council, and we are working closely with them, Northern Rail and the industry to help them secure trains so they can introduce passenger services as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for Network Rail said: “The new track for the Todmorden Curve was built earlier this year and part of the signalling required to safely operate trains on the line has been installed allowing services to run in one direction.
"To complete the final signalling stage, and allow trains to run in both directions, we need to close the line for a short period of time which will mean disrupting services and passengers.
"We have been working with Northern Rail to agree a time to do this which meets the requirements of both organisations.
"It is proposed that the signalling work is completed by February 2015 with the line open fully in time for the timetable change in May.”
A Northern Rail spokesman said they had been looking to introduce the new service ‘as soon as practically possible’.
“To enable that to happen there is some work to complete on the signalling, once this has been done, we will be able to start driver route-learning,” added the spokesman.