The fact that three MPs from adjacent seats – Mark Eastwood (Dewsbury), Holly Lynch (Halifax) and Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) – did so in quick succession yesterday reveals how rail is becoming a defining test of the Government’s commitment to the North, irrespective of whether this was an unintended pincer movement or long-overdue display of cross-party co-operation long advocated by this newspaper.
Most telling, however, was Boris Johnson’s response when Mr Eastwood, elected for the first time just last month, told him bluntly that “the Northern rail service is no longer fit for purpose”. The PM took this to mean the Arriva-run Northern franchise as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps considers whether to nationalise the service or put new short-term arrangements in place – a decision is due next week.
However this crisis, as Mr Johnson should know by now, applies to the whole of the North and stems, in part, from an accountability vacuum that has enabled Ministers, Network Rail and train operators to avoid responsibilty in the mistaken belief that record delays and cancellations by Northern, and also TransPennine Express, are acceptable. They’re not.
Yet, while the quality of rail services is a key benchmark that voters will judge Ministers against at the next election, so, too, will HS2 ahead of the publication of the Oakervee review into high-speed rail. It will show if Mr Johnson is prepared to take tough decisions for the long-term – HS2 will increase capacity on the whole rail network and speed up Northern Powerhouse Rail – or whether the North is going to have to carry on fighting for every last pound of investment. Prime Minister, what is it going to be?