Andrew Vine: Tourist trap... my guided tour of gridlocked North

Commuters at Horsforth station - but is the Government committed to improving the transport network in the North?
Commuters at Horsforth station - but is the Government committed to improving the transport network in the North?
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AS a commentary on the transport chaos blighting Yorkshire, the question posed by a visiting friend pretty much summed the whole mess up.

“My God, what’s going on up here?”, he asked as we crammed ourselves onto a train from Leeds to Sheffield. It wasn’t just the overcrowding on board, because – obviously – there were not enough seats and we’d have to stand.

It was also the scene at the station, where the timetabling fiasco on operator Northern’s rail services resulted in packed platforms full of frustrated 
people trying to get to work, and finding their trains cancelled or delayed.

Overcrowded services are nothing new to him. He lives in London, and shoehorns himself onto Tube trains every day of his working life. But this is different, and much worse.

At least Tube services are frequent, and if a train is too full, he can wait a few minutes for the next one without it wrecking his working day or getting him home infuriatingly late.

The people at Leeds, or at all the 
other stations, large or small, didn’t 
have that luxury, instead being caught in the vicious circle which means every cancelled or delayed train guarantees that overcrowding becomes worse on 
the next.

We ended up having a slightly surreal few days, since I found myself inadvertently giving him a slow-moving tour of some of Yorkshire’s worst transport problems.

The railways, of course, he’d known about. He’d heard the bellow of rage from the whole of the North over the problems, the Government’s failure to sort them out and the buck-passing to avoid blame, but even that hadn’t prepared him for just how bad the reality was.

Then there are the roads. He wanted to visit the magnificently-restored Piece Hall in Halifax. That meant getting stuck on the M62, the country’s most elevated car park.

The sun shone, so he fancied Scarborough. Yes, that meant the A64, and the time-honoured queue at the Hopgrove roundabout on the way there, and standing traffic on the Malton bypass where it goes from dual carriageway to single on the way back.

He might well ask what’s going on up here. All those people jostling on the platforms at Leeds, their faces falling as they see a train pulling in that is already full to bursting, must ask themselves the same question.

There’s another question that he and I discussed as we sat in the car on the M62. What’s being done about it?

Nothing like enough is the answer, especially since summer is now here and tourism is going to put even more pressure on the North’s transport network.

Already, we have the preposterous situation of a heritage railway company stepping in to provide trains in the Lake District using vintage locomotives, after Northern, a company contracted to provide services, axed them.

And we can only guess at the ordeal visitors face in getting to the Great Exhibition of the North, which opened at the weekend.

What sort of impression must the degree of gridlock on the roads and chaos on the railways give to visitors?

There’s a real danger that it could put people off coming here, because it is just too much trouble getting around.

Equally importantly, it could deter business from investing. If employees cannot make it into work on time because trains don’t turn up, and goods cannot be moved efficiently by road because they are at a standstill, that doesn’t add up for any company.

We’re in danger of the North starting to resemble a foreign country where nothing works properly, and it isn’t 
our fault.

Entirely justified complaints about a lack of action over a failing transport network are falling on deaf ears in the Government, which offers warm words but too little action.

What a contrast there is between the way the fiasco on Northern has been handled by the Government compared to its attitude towards the strikes on the Southern network last year when passengers were left stranded.

That was spoken of by Ministers in terms more akin to a national emergency. Shock, horror – commuters can’t get to work in London or home again afterwards.

There has been no such urgency or sense of crisis needing decisive action about the problems affecting Yorkshire and the rest of the North.

We all know the reason why. Anything affecting London directly impacts the Government, and it had better do something about it or risk the ire of voters and the capital’s business community.

But to this Government, and especially its Transport Secretary, the North is just a place that is vaguely “up there”, not at the heart of things, to be fobbed off and treated with less regard, which is just going to have to muddle through as best it can.

This is going to have to change, and if the Government won’t see the sense – and economic necessity – of improving the transport network, then it should brace itself for the rudest of awakenings whenever the next election comes.