Bill Carmichael: Human toll of rail woe – and why a lack of political clout is to blame

Northern rail services are again in the spotlight.
Northern rail services are again in the spotlight.
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RAIL delays – which happen all too often in this part of the world – are invariably frustrating and, at times, infuriating experiences.

But one small consolation is that a peculiar and rather marvellous thing happens to passengers when you are stuck on a packed carriage 
going precisely nowhere for hours on end.

People who have been jabbing furiously at their phones or staring fixedly at their shoelaces for the whole journey suddenly look up as the train judders to a halt as though taking in the world afresh for the first time.

And wonder of wonders, as the minutes of delay turn into endless hours, they actually start talking to each other!

It happened to me at the end of last month when a lightning strike hit the signaling system, seemingly bringing the entire rail network of northern England to a grinding halt.

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I was on a busy Aire Valley service near Shipley when the train crew announced we would be going no further.

There were no trains in any direction in or out of Leeds for the foreseeable future. We were well and truly stuck!

A young woman sitting opposite me immediately burst into tears.

After being consoled and offered some paper hankies by other passengers, she dabbed her eyes and told her story.

She was due to be the chief bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding in Newcastle that afternoon.

“The dress cost nearly £500 – but that’s not the worst of it,” she said.

“We’ve been talking about this day since we were little girls. I always promised I would be there for her on her big day, as she was for mine. And now I can’t make it!”

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She wasn’t the only one needing a paper hanky by the end of this sad 
tale. A retired couple told us they were on their way to Edinburgh to care for their three grandchildren while their daughter and son-in-law enjoyed a week’s childfree holiday in Spain. “They are supposed to be flying tonight,” said the grandfather. “I don’t know what will happen if we can’t get there.”

A mature lady shyly revealed she was on her way to Manchester for her first physical date with a potential boyfriend.

“I’ve been chatting to him online for a few weeks and he seems nice enough,” she said.

“But you never can tell on the internet, and I wanted to see if he is for real. He will probably think I’ve stood him up!”

These stories illustrate a very important point about the ongoing rail chaos engulfing our region.

Of course there is a huge economic cost of the numerous delays – the business meetings cancelled, job interviews missed, normally productive employees forced into idleness once the batteries on their mobile phones have died.

But there is also a social, or if you like a human cost, that is just as important. We live in a largely atomised society and efficient transport links are the glue that holds communities together and gives us access to the good things in life – such as a best friend’s wedding, a trip to see the grandchildren or a budding romance.

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That’s one of the reasons why we need substantial investment – the sort of sums taken for granted in London and the South East – to improve rail services across the north of England.

HS3 – or Northern Powerhouse Rail as it is now called – should just be the start of it. We need fast, reliable trains linking Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Hull and York to Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. And we need a level of resilience in the infrastructure so that the entire system doesn’t collapse when lightning strikes.

But despite the sterling efforts of this newspaper and its innovative One North campaign, the Government remains unmoved. Chris Grayling seems to have the attitude of “Don’t blame me – I’m just the Transport Secretary”.

The problem here is quite simply a lack of political clout. The Yorkshire Post, along with more than 20 other newspapers across the region, has cranked up the pressure. But the political response, at least on this side of the Pennines, has been feeble.

More reason you might think for a One Yorkshire devolution deal with an elected mayor representing the whole county and with the power, money and prestige to demand action from Whitehall.

And that, I suspect, is precisely the reason why Ministers are proving so resistant to the One Yorkshire option. They are not afraid it will be a failure – they are afraid it will be a success.