The Yorkshire Post’s front page headline said it all in early June last year when commuters faced unprecedented misery on the region’s rail services. “Enough is enough,” it proclaimed.
Yet, while this joint call-to-arms with major newspapers across the North helped to bring about some modest improvements to punctuality and reliability, they have not been sustained.
Performance by Northern and TransPennine Express, who run the region’s two main commuter services, are as bad now as they were 12 months ago in the aftermath of the timetable turmoil.
Yes, new rolling stock is being belatedly introduced – it would be churlish not to recognise this – but Northern’s ubiquitous Pacers museum pieces, due to be scrapped this year, will be staying in service in 2020.
No wonder commuters are exasperated as late – and cancelled – trains compound overcrowding and leave them standing in cramped carriages as they contemplate the next New Year hike in rail fares.
And with the Prime Minister due at today’s Convention of the North in Rotherham, leaders here should tell Boris Johnson that there is one simple law change which would carry broad support – even in these febrile times.
It is to include performance clauses in all rail franchise contracts so that they can be terminated if key benchmarks are not met over customer and passenger service. The benefits would be three-fold.
First, it will end the current anomaly where firms can only lose a franchise in the event of financial failure – the reason for the demise of LNER, National Express and Virgin Trains / Stagecoach on the East Coast Main Line.
As Andy Burnham, the metro mayor of Greater Manchester, put it to me when explaining his renewed call for Northern to lose its franchise, and also the decline of weekend services, the performance can be “absolutely appalling” and the Transport Secretary’s hands are tied. At present Northern cannot be replaced until 2025 while the TransPennine Express deal expires in 2023.
Second, it would clarify the remit of Ministers – and bodies like Transport for the North. Officials for Grant Shapps, the new Transport Secretary, say he will act if operators are found to be at “fault”. Yet they won’t define this trigger point. “We monitor the performance of all train operators against the terms of their Franchise Agreement,” a spokesman said.
Asked then for clarification on the status of Northern and TransPennine Express under this criteria, the spokesman said: “We do not disclose commercially sensitive information.” It was hardly a vote of confidence before saying these were matters for the Keith Williams review now underway.
Finally, it would show the PM’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse ahead of his third visit to Yorkshire in a month. Instead of waiting for the Williams report, he should take the initiative.
From his experience as Mayor of London, he appreciates that reliable train and bus services are crucial to increasing prosperity and productivity of the North as well as overcoming social inequality. “Affordable, fast transport makes a huge difference,” said Mr Johnson when he visited this newspaper last week.
This is why the campaign for improvements to existing services is just as important, certainly in the short-term, as longer-term infrastructure projects like HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.
It is why newspapers joined forces in June 2018 for the One North collaboration which demanded action on rail services – and why even more publications are now backing the Power Up The North campaign that was launched this June to challenge all political parties to turbo-charge this region’s growth agenda.
Already it has changed the dynamics of the debate – Theresa May offered belated backing in her final days as PM – while Mr Johnson acceded to our call for the post Northern Powerhouse Minister to be given Cabinet status.
But this is no consolation to passengers who have simply had enough of shambolic services that would not be tolerated in London and the South East.
According to a report presented to Transport for the North, TransPennine Express – the main operator between Yorkshire and the North West – has cancelled an average of 42 train each day for the past four weeks. This equates to 12.9 per cent of all services. For Northern, 139 trains a day are not running – a cancellation rate of 5.3 per cent.
Yes, some of this disruption has been caused by factors beyond their control, there is no confidence left in the management of these two firms. Totally unaccountable, all they offer are excuses, and late trains which will only get back on track when the Government holds failing operators to account. It’s called public service. Over to you, Boris Johnson. Enough really is enough this time.