TODAY’S 2.7 per cent increase in train fares is made even more galling by the desperate state of the North’s railways as poor reliability, once again, becomes a national embarrassment.
There is no leadership, no responsibility and no accountability – all failures that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps needs to address as the Government considers taking over the troubled Northern franchise.
And the latest delays, exacerbated by more botched timetable changes, have disrupted so many people and led to so much negative comment on national radio that they suggest the North is closed for business. It is not.
Yet, while the Department for Transport considers splitting the operation in two, with separate divisions for the North East and North West, it will take more than this to get back on track.
It now needs Mr Shapps to create a structure that stops the excuses and creates a railway that reflects the ambition – and impetus – now underpinning the Northern Powerhouse policy agenda.
After all, would your company invest in Yorkshire when just 40 per cent of rail operator Northern’s local commuter services are on time? No.
Would you relocate to the North when TransPennine Express, the operator serving major cities, has a punctuality rate of just 28 per cent and is cancelling over 14 per cent of all services? No. Would you set up business in an area where up to half the TPE trains can be over 30 minutes late in the rush hour – and where no lessons have been learned from the botched timetable changes of May 2018? No.
Figures which show that the rail crisis extends beyond the troubled Arriva-owned Northern franchise, such sustained and systemic poor performance would not be tolerated in London – or any other great city – and the North should be no exception if the region is to become a national and international powerhouse.
From my dealings with ministers, Mr Shapps gets this. Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry does too. And so, too, does Treasury chief secretary Rishi Sunak, with the Richmond MP instrumental in persuading officials to rip up decades-old spending rules so the economic needs of the North are viewed more favourably when it comes to infrastructure spending.
Key members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, they now need to ensure this is the last year where passengers pay more for the privilege of standing on even more unreliable trains – or antiquated Pacer relics on some routes.
Whatever structure is determined by former British Airways boss Keith Williams, there needs to be better co-ordination. It is still too easy for the Department for Transport, Network Rail, Transport for the North, councils and others to pass the buck.
Their obfuscation is now ingrained throughout the railway industry – as I discovered when I made the mistake of catching the train into Leeds.
Though it started on time, it became held up outside the city centre. There was no Tannoy announcement and some passengers, particularly an elderly lady, were becoming very agitated about missing onward connections.
When the guard finally appeared and was asked when the train would get moving again, they replied: “I don’t know – ask Network Rail.”
There was no attempt to find out.
It was no better heading home, with two Northern staff standing like statues on a platform watching OAPs struggle off a train with their hefty luggage. In the end, conscientious passengers came to their aid. Asked why they couldn’t help, they replied: “We’re drivers. Not our job.”
And I thought this was a public service.
Very minor in the scale of things – the initial hold-up was 10 minutes or so – but such examples are indicative of a wider malaise besetting the railways.
There is no clear leadership in the North – perhaps there’s a case for a transport commissioner to co-ordinate strategy and champion the interests of passengers.
There’s no responsibility – operators like Northern and TransPennine Express show a cavalier contempt for passengers and the hardship caused by delays because they know so many passengers have no alternative transport. Some of the more unhelpful staff know this too.
And there’s no accountability – why is Leo Goodwin still heading the TPE franchise and commanding a £330,000-plus salary package, including “reward for failure” performance bonuses from the past year, when punctuality rates are declining so markedly?
Yes, the North has suffered decades of under-investment and it will take time to make the railways more reliable.
But the journey will be smoother when railway executives are stopped from taking passengers for a ride. Transport Secretary, over to you.