Litmus test for rail franchise

Third time lucky? Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin clearly hopes that this will be the case on the East Coast mainline after a joint consortium between Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and transport operator Stagecoach – to be known as Inter City Railways – won the race to run express services linking Yorkshire with London and Scotland.

Its challenges are considerable – despite the route being one of Britain’s busiest. Both GNER and National Express walked away from previous franchise agreements because they could not honour their financial obligations, and many wanted the Department for Transport’s own company Directly Operated Railways, set up in 2009, to continue to run these services on a longer-term basis.

However Mr McLoughlin, one of the few Transport Secretaries in recent times to recognise the rail network’s importance and potential, has concluded that this is the best way to secure new investment for a route which was making history 80 years ago this weekend when the Flying Scotsman became the first locomotive in Britain to record a speed of 100mph.

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This is the first significant test of the Government’s new franchise rules following the West Coast debacle and the introduction of new rolling stock is both welcome and long overdue. It is also a vote of confidence that there are plans for faster and more frequent services as well as direct links from Huddersfield and Dewsbury to London. Travellers from Harrogate and Shipley will also enjoy additional trains to and from the capital after Ministers listened to the demands of local residents and business leaders.

However the litmus test will not be the political argument between Mr McLoughlin and Labour’s Michael Dugher, the Shadow Transport Secretary, about the merits of privatisation, but whether the trains run on time and fares are affordable to all. Judging by their track record elsewhere, both Virgin and Stagecoach have much to prove before these points can be answered in the affirmative.

Hostage to fortune

PM’s dilemma on immigration

IN MANY respects, David Cameron has allowed himself to become a hostage to fortune on immigration as he puts the finishes touches to his long-awaited policy speech on this contentious issue.

His “no ifs, no buts” promise before the 2010 election to reduce levels of migration has now been proven to be groundless, and Theresa May conceded at the weekend that the Government is “unlikely” to meet its various targets.

The Prime Minister has not been helped by his failure to differentiate between migration from European Union countries, which the Government cannot control, and levels of immigration from further afield which Ministers can control with targets and quotas.

The consequence – and Nick Clegg identified this during the TV debates – is that Mr Cameron is having to respond to the demands of the United Kingdom Independence Party, and his increasingly strident Eurosceptic backbenchers, rather than leading the debate from the front.

His challenge in his policy speech is two-fold. He needs to assuage those who will be alarmed that 260,000 migrants, a number comparable to the size of Plymouth, moved to Britain in the past year while reassuring those who appreciate the important contribution that so many immigrants make to the economy, not least in academia. As such, the national interest demands that the PM’s intervention is driven by pragmatism rather than the latest opinion polls.

Access now, please

Respecting all on the high street

AS TRADERS look to exploit growing public awareness of “Black Friday” and use discounts to lure Christmas shoppers to their stores, there will be one important section of society who will be missing from Yorkshire’s high streets – the disabled.

Two years on from the Paralympics which were supposed to mark a watershed in this country’s approach towards people with disabilities, much more needs to be done to improve accessibility for all.

It’s not just about buses and shops being wheelchair-friendly; it is about a recognition that people with disabilities are not pariahs and deserve to be treated with the same level of respect, and courtesy, as an able-bodied customer. As the charity Vitalise launches a new online campaign with the Twitter hashtag #AccessNow, perhaps the best action is the naming and shaming of those stores whose approach lags behind the times. Only then will they realise that they have a key role to play in changing attitudes for the better.