THE END of the line for troubled rail operator Northern is not a cause for celebration after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that the failing franchise is to be renationalised.
Quite the opposite. The decision to put the Department for Transport in charge, and strip Arriva of its responsibilities from March 1, is just another milestone in a tortuous journey for passengers.
And while this represents progress more than 18 months after The Yorkshire Post first teamed up with rival newspapers across the North to press for action, there’s still a long way to go before commuters receive a rail service commensurate with the region’s ambition.
Until levels of punctuality and reliability – currently the worst in Britain with less than half of trains running on time – compare favourably with other parts of the country, this region needs to maintain political and public pressure on the Government until it receives the levels of investment, and attention, that it has been denied for decades.
What is needed is a change of culture – a rebranding from Northern to Northern Trains does not suffice on its own – and clear plan of action to ensure more co-ordination between infrastructure improvements and the introduction of new trains and timetables intended to enhance services.
Never again can there be the absurd situation where passengers have to endure antiquated rolling stock, like the much-maligned Pacer trains, because of Network Rail’s failure to complete track upgrades on time.
And, in this respect, the past still holds the key to the future if the Northern Powerhouse agenda is not to endure further reputational damage. As such, the onus is on Mr Shapps to address the following five points.
First, he must order an indepedent inquiry into the entire Northern fiasco – the DfT was far too slow to respond to deteriorating performance from 2016 onwards. Lessons need to be learned, not least why Arriva bosses were getting such generous bonuses when their company was letting down passengers.
Second, the new team must work with Network Rail to develop a joined-up plan for all services – this announcement does not address difficulties on TransPennine Express.
Third, recognition that passengers matter. Cleanliness needs tackling. As does communications when services are delayed. Existing promises of new rolling stock still need honouring so the Pacers are sent for scrap this year and not a day later.
Fourth, industrial relations must be a priority. Even though staff are not to blame, Sunday services have been badly hit by insufficient crews being available for duty.
Finally, this stripping of the franchise must be the start of wider reforms; from the Williams Review into the running of the railway – and its future – to the construction of Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2.
Unlike his predecessor Chris Grayling, Mr Shapps has shown a clarity of purpose. Now he must take Northern services on a journey of reform that only reaches the end destination when this region has a rail network which is fit for purpose and can power up the North’s economy. And that still requires both time – and money.