Richard George, head of the nationalised franchise formerly known as Northern Rail, was bemoaning the fact this week that his carriages were still carrying “a lot of fresh air” and not much else. Passengers, he said, were not “psychologically ready” to return to the trains in large numbers after months of being told to stay away.
But was it just the lockdown that had put them off, or the standard of the service before it?
If everyone had been told two years ago, when the timetable chaos was at its height, that staying at home was an acceptable alternative to surrendering to the daily lottery of whether the 8.15 was going to turn up, the platforms would have emptied faster than a pub at closing time.
Mr George’s appeal for a return to the rails came before Boris Johnson’s clarification yesterday, at a meeting of the quango Transport for the North, where it was echoed by the Leeds Council leader Judith Blake. People, she said, no longer knew what was expected of them. The Government’s earlier instruction to avoid public transport if possible, had stuck.
Is that the fault of “people”, though, or of Transport for the North for not doing its job?
I took a walk to my local station on Wednesday for the first time in four months, to see what advice passengers were now being given. It was hard to believe it was part of the same company Mr George is now running.
“Essential journeys only” was the greeting on the Leeds-bound platform. A poster went on to list seven conditions that had to be met if the train was one’s “only option”. There were other notices in similar vein.
They could not have been less ambiguous if someone had plastered a big “go away” sign at the entrance.
I’m not a doctor, but this did not point me towards the belief that passengers were psychologically unfit to travel; just that they were not wanted. No wonder, as Mrs Blake said, the advice to stay away had stuck – it was literally stuck to the platform wall.
Mixed messages like this – posters saying one thing, officials implying the opposite – have defined the Government’s handling of the pandemic, and the requirement to wear face masks in shops from next Friday is a case in point. I remember being told, at around the same time as not to catch the train, that masks were ineffective in stopping the spread of Covid-19 and I’m not entirely sure who decided otherwise, or on what advice. Common sense would suggest that they harbour more germs than they repel.
But we will adjust to them sooner than we think. I’ve already seen “designer” masks on sale for a couple of pounds, and they look no worse than many other abominations committed in the name of fashion. Actually, they look like the face coverings that used to get teenagers thrown out of shops; now we’re making them compulsory.
Ultimately, the acceptance or otherwise of advice hinges on trusting the policymakers who dispense it. And unhappily, much of their business has been conducted with as much transparency as a shoplifter in a face mask.
At Transport for the North’s level, it may be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, which was ever thus, but nationally there is outright deceit at play.
The latest instance of this was exposed by Sir Keir Starmer, in calling out Mr Johnson for suggesting that the Government’s test and trace system had been “a stunning success”. That was obviously not true, said Starmer; the PM was kidding no one.
He wasn’t fooling me, that was for sure. Mrs B and I had gone for a pub meal last week – it was worth the wait – and in inviting us to order our food via an app, the waitress directed our attention to the tracking section within it. “You can ignore it but we’re obliged to put it there,” she said. If the same, casual enforcement was applied to the collection of income tax, would Mr Johnson consider that a stunning success, too? I’ll try ignoring my self-assessment form next spring and see how that goes.
Meanwhile, I have no immediate plans to catch a train, and it’s no use the railway industry blaming me for being psychologically unsound – because for all the travails of the last few months, staying at home is the one thing that has kept me sane.
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