STRIPPING Arriva Rail North of its franchise to run Northern rail after years of huge disruption was an important and necessary first step.
It is a good decision. However, it should never have taken this long. Much of the blame for the delay is down to the dithering and ineptitude of Chris Grayling, the previous Transport Secretary.
I welcome the fact that his successor Grant Shapps has finally done the right thing by renationalising the service and putting the government-controlled Operator of Last Resort in charge.
Frustrated passengers had rightly nicknamed the company “Northern Fail” for its appalling service, blighted by delays, cancellations and an outdated fleet of Pacer trains more suited to a museum than a modern railway network.
In fact, one Pacer is going on display at the National Railway Museum which is where the 1980s-built trains – based on old Leyland National buses and introduced as a supposedly temporary measure – belong.
The delays and stress suffered by people who rely on Northern to get them to their destinations on time has forced people to move home and put jobs at risk as commuters have to explain why they are frequently late for work.
It is an entirely unacceptable situation and I have written to the Transport Secretary this week to demand answers as there is no clarity about when the required improvements will be made – or how they will be funded.
According to Office of Rail and Road figures, barely half of Northern trains arrive on time. That compares to an average of 65 per cent across Britain. One of the first tasks of the new management must be to make swift improvements when it comes to tackling delays, cancellations and terrible overcrowding. There needs to be a dramatic improvement in performance within weeks, not months.
There are four stations in my constituency of Leeds West and anyone who has joined passengers on the platforms, as I have to see the problems at first-hand, will be in no doubt about the misery passengers on Northern endure. They have waited long enough for their travel nightmare to end.
While the Transport Secretary will need to ensure Northern’s new managers have a relentless focus on improving performance, there is far more that he needs to do.
Now that the Government and the Department for Transport is in control of both Northern and Network Rail – the body responsible for rail infrastructure – managers can no longer play the blame game.
Arriva has long blamed Network Rail for failing to deliver changes like longer platforms on time. Given that the Government is in charge of both arms, there can be no excuses.
The Transport Secretary talked this week about plans to extend the platforms at 30 stations on the Northern network. I would like to see the timetable for that, along with a timetable for improvements such as track upgrades and new rolling stock.
If the Government is serious about the Northern Powerhouse, it must also redress the chronic imbalance which sees funding for transport infrastructure pumped into London and the South at the expense of the North.
According to IPPR North, the average amount of spending per head on transport in London has been 2.4 times more than in the North – £739 compared to £305. Investment in our rail network is critical if we are to see the changes we all want.
The improvements need to encompass the TransPennine Express and East-West connections across our region which are just as important as North to South routes, which brings me on to HS2.
The Transport Secretary has promised an announcement on this £88bn rail project. I am a supporter of HS2. But we should not be asked or forced to choose between HS2 and good local services. London should not have to make that choice and nor should our region.
HS2 will free up capacity for more local rail services by putting in new infrastructure and help deliver the much-needed HS3 in the form of “Crossrail for the North”, connecting Hull, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.
The Yorkshire Post is right to call on the Government to ensure there is a “joined-up plan” for all rail services. We have had years of broken promises and piecemeal proposals. Ministers need a cohesive, workable blueprint to overhaul the network.
But the Government also needs to look at its deeply flawed rail franchising process. When faced with such sub-standard services, it is no wonder that Labour’s policy of renationalisation is so popular.
The Transport Secretary said people across the North deserve better and their communities deserve better. I agree, though his statement fails to recognise many of the problems are down to the Government’s botched or non-existent efforts.
And in the months ahead, I will keep the pressure on the Transport Secretary to properly invest in our rail network to help grow our economy and end the years of pain suffered by rail travellers.
Rachel Reeves is MP for Leeds West and chair of Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.