“NOT having enough drivers to run the railway is not good enough – whatever the contractual or industrial relations issues.”
Even though he is the directly-elected metro for Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham was speaking for the whole of the North when he challenged Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to strip under-fire operator Northern of its franchise.
The context was this. After a year of disrupted weekend services, more so in the North West than Yorkshire, he has been inundated with complaints from passengers whose weekend plans have been hit by train cancellations unrelated to Bank Holiday engineering work.
Unhelpful at the best of times, the knock-on effects have been compounded by the number of people trying to use the train to attend major sporting, cultural and leisure events on both sides of the Pennines from the Ashes Test at Headlingley and Leeds Festival to Manchester Pride and poignant Ariana Grande concert as the American pop star returns to the North West for the first time since the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing in June 2017.
And while the inadequate and ineffectual communication between Northern and its passengers remains an incurring issue, it is even more scandalous that Mr Burnham – an elected politician – says that he has been unable to ascertain any explanation from rail chiefs, hence his impassioned intervention.
He’s right. It can’t go on like this. This is a public service – or it should be – and a reliable railway is crucial for commuters as well as leisure travellers and families trying to visit relatives. It is also integral to the Northern Powerhouse policy agenda and Power Up The North campaign being run by The Yorkshire Post and more than 30 newspapers. And with Northern’s franchise not due to end until April 2025, the choice facing Ministers is simple – either it replaces the operator, including its weak management, or puts in place strict performance criteria, like provision of drivers, that must be honoured. Doing nothing is no longer an option.