John Grogan: Help to get the county moving on Boxing Day

BOXING Day 2014 will see bumper crowds at five Yorkshire football grounds – Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, York, Doncaster and Rotherham.

Leeds Rhinos will be entertaining Wakefield Wildcats at Headingley for their now traditional rugby league fixture.

Manchester Airport is expecting Boxing Day to be its busiest day of the year, while the sales will be under way and tills ringing in shopping centres from Meadowhall in Sheffield to Monks Cross in York.

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The pantomime season will also have resumed at theatres across the county.

Yet there will not be a single train service in the whole of Yorkshire. From 8pm on Christmas Eve until some 55 hours later on the morning of Saturday, December 27, the vast bulk of our national train network will be shut down.

In contrast, trains will run across most of the continent of Europe throughout the Christmas holiday. Moreover, what train services do operate in England on Boxing Day will be concentrated in the South East servicing the capital and Gatwick and Stansted Airports.

Until the early 1960s, trains ran throughout the holiday period. In London, the Underground resumes early on Boxing Day morning after a 24- hour shutdown. In the last decade, some English passenger transport authorities have at least tried to fund a basic bus service on December 26.

More locally, Sheffield City Council supports some services within the city and the tram will be in operation that day.

Since 2010, more and more bus services have been introduced in West Yorkshire. A flat-fare day ticket is available at £3.50 for adults or £1 for unaccompanied children.

This allows unlimited travel on Boxing Day services in West Yorkshire, regardless of the operator and every fare-paying adult can take up to two children free.

Demand is clearly there with patronage 25 per cent up last year compared to 2012. Indeed instances of full buses on some routes such as Leeds to Bradford will this year lead to increased frequency of services.

Clearly the absence of public transport inhibits sports fans, shoppers and those travelling to our busy airports in making their plans. It also means those households without a car find it that much more difficult to join family gatherings over the holiday period.

For some employed well away from home in London, and who have to be back at work in the retail sector or elsewhere first thing on Boxing Day morning, it means Christmas Day in God’s Own County is not really practical at all.

For many vulnerable people on their own at Christmas, being unable to get out for an extended period can only increase feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The lack of public transport also hardly sends the greenest of Christmas messages from our policy-makers. In a county which now boasts communities from many faiths, it does not seem very inclusive.

So what is to be done? Governments of all parties have shown no real enthusiasm whilst in office to tackle the problem.

Throughout the Blair and Brown years, Ministers were often pressed as Advent took hold on the impending extended rail shutdown. As a justification for inaction, they generally fell back on the somewhat contradictory arguments that those who worked on the railways needed a holiday and that there was much engineering work that needed to be done.

In 2008, the Conservative Shadow Transport Minister Stephen Hammond said: “By allowing the railway to close so completely on Boxing Day Labour are condemning sports fans, and families trying to celebrate the Christmas period together, to misery on our clogged-up motorways.”

Stephen Hammond was appointed Rail Minister by David Cameron in September 2012. He lost his job in the reshuffle of July 2014. When challenged on the issue of Boxing Day travel, he replied: “This is an issue that still concerns me.”

The truth is that Ministers could gradually increase the provision of Boxing Day trains by adding it as a requirement of all new franchises.

There is a great opportunity to do that in Yorkshire and indeed across the North of England. Before he left office, Mr Hammond was the Minister who issued invitations to tender for the TransPennine and Northern Rail franchises for 2016 onwards.

However, there is no requirement in the franchise documents to provide Boxing Day trains. There is still time to put this right – local councils could exert influence. As the General Election approaches, it is also, of course, open for all political parties to commit to amending the franchise. A promise that Christmas future will be better than Christmas present, and Christmas past, when it comes to Boxing Day public transport would not go amiss in these parts.

• John Grogan is a public transport campaigner who is Labour’s candidate for Keighley in the general election.