If there's one thing slower than a train across the Pennines, it's route improvements - David Behrens

If there is one thing slower than a train journey across the Pennines, it’s the pace of progress in speeding it up.

It takes up to four hours to do the full stretch from Hull to Liverpool, on days when the unions or the weather haven’t scuppered the service completely, and it’s impossible without changing trains, often twice. It’s one of the least reliable routes in the country and the least affordable; when I looked up prices for this Sunday, the cheapest ticket was £69 one-way. Driving, on the other hand, takes two-and-a-half hours and even at today’s prices costs only £25 in fuel, for up to five passengers.

So it’s hardly surprising that the railways are a last resort for most of us – a second-class experience in an interminable slow lane.

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But it’s going to be a long time before it improves. Grant Shapps, who at the time of writing is still Transport Secretary, admitted this week that despite investing “probably beyond what the

A Transpennine service heading to Manchester.A Transpennine service heading to Manchester.
A Transpennine service heading to Manchester.

Victorians were doing” it would take 10 to 15 years to finish upgrading the route. Even then it is not clear if journeys as far as Hull will benefit. That is a particular insult given the disruptive highway upgrade in the city centre that is nearly a decade behind schedule.

And Mr Shapps seemed to have little confidence in the information his officials had fed him. Will it be 10 years or 15; why didn’t he know? What kind of project manager goes into a job with 50 per cent leeway?

According to the National Audit Office, it’s a very poor planner indeed that has such a loose grasp of figures. It says Mr Shapps’ department has taken too long to make decisions about the upgrade and altered the plans repeatedly. As a result there could be yet more delays and an overspend on the eye-watering £11.5bn budget. Some £190m of that has been spent on work that is no longer even needed.

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It makes you wonder if government departments are institutionally incapable of doing anything properly, and this week came the official answer: they are indeed.

The House of Lords Public Services Committee reported on Tuesday that Whitehall staff could not keep pace with the increasingly complex demands being made of them, and that new and different ways of delivering public services would have to be found.

This was not the aspect of the report that most of the media picked up but it was the one that came closest to identifying the root of the problem right across government: officials are simply out of their depth.

And it’s not a question of having too few staff; it’s having too few of the right staff. For while ministers are easily got rid of, their minions are not.

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Their departments have been populated for generations by non-specialist administrators – self-proclaimed “generalists” – who expect to spend their entire careers climbing the same greasy pole and who have mastered the protocol but nothing else. Most have got there by well-trodden recruitment methods; there are few if any apprenticeship schemes or local talent pools, and little attempt to attract ambitious people who want interesting careers, not just jobs for life.

This, said the Lords committee, could not go on; public services needed rebranding to make them an attractive career choice. The report did not say in so many words that Whitehall needed a grand bonfire of the complacencies to clear out its dead wood, but its words – unlike those of Mr Shapps – left little room for conjecture.

The conclusions will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked in government – especially in the Transport Department. I recall one of its subordinate agencies spending £1m on a recruitment drive to broaden the workforce but failing to hire a single person; just rewarding the same old faces with new promotions.

On the current Government’s watch, the inadequacies were already plain to see. The HS2 plan to link the North and South with high-speed trains has been botched so badly that it has ended up pleasing no-one, going nowhere and costing more than the country spent on the entire furlough programme during the pandemic.

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This is an amount that can’t simply be recouped on the price of tickets to Liverpool from Hull – though they seem to be doing their best. Nor can it be justified by vague comparisons to the Victorians. If Isambard Kingdom Brunel could see our railways today, he would wonder why he’d bothered.