BOTH Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt can consider themselves fortunate that they won’t be travelling on a clapped-out Pacer to tonight’s Tory leadership hustings. They’d never make it to York.
More’s the pity. Not only would the two men vying to become Britain’s next Prime Minister experience these so-called trains – there would be uproar if these rusty rattletraps with defective windows for air-con were used in the South-East – but they might appreciate why the Government is so mistrusted here.
Introduced in the 1980s as a short-term fix using parts from buses, these squealing trains – a national embarrassment – were due to be sent to scrap by the end of 2018 as rail operator Northern introduced supposedly 21st century services.
That deadline was put back until the end of 2019 as Ministers – in another insult – launched a competition to find new uses for these cast-offs. Community centres and sports changing rooms were suggested.
And then it emerged over the weekend that some of the 102 Pacer trains still in daily use here would not be withdrawn until 2020 due to technical issues with new rolling stock.
All this while a £1bn fleet of trains earmarked for Crossrail – the state-of-the-art line that Mr Johnson lauds as one of his greatest achievements as Mayor of London – stand idle because of delays to the completion of the £17.6bn route.
Yet the scandal is no one – from long-suffering passengers to exasperated politicians – was remotely surprised when Northern, a failing franchise where there is no management accountability whatsoever, and the Department for Transport grudgingly confirmed the latest reprieve and refused to set a definitive date for the final journey for Pacers. People here are resigned to it.
When Hull North MP Diana Johnson raised the issue in Parliament on Monday, there was a weary acceptance by John Bercow, the Speaker, that no explanation – never mind an apology – would be forthcoming from the DfT. Yet when was Transport Secretary Chris Grayling – him again – informed of this delay? Some suggest it was weeks ago. We should be told. Some humility, for once, from the Tories won’t go amiss.
It was the same when Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves tackled Treasury Minister Robert Jenrick 24 hours later about how “spending on transport in the south of England has risen twice as fast as in the north of England” since 2014. His reply? “This Government are investing more in the North than the previous Labour government.” Stop the blame game, Mr Jenrick, and tell that to passengers on rickety trains as uncomfortable as a rocking horse as they fall apart.
And it was the same when I dug out the commitment that Rail Minister Andrew Jones – whose Harrogate constituents use Pacers – gave to The Yorkshire Post in February. “I am delighted, as I’m sure my fellow Yorkshire commuters will be, to confirm that all those Pacer trains will be retired by the end of this year,” he wrote in a submitted article. Just one of many such undertakings, no wonder the Tories have lost so much trust and electoral support here.
Of course, the context is critical. Safety is paramount after Northern belatedly discovered mechanical defects on its new £500m fleet of trains which is being introduced this week – the knock-on effects in terms of “train delivery, testing and driver training” explain why the final date for Pacers will be kept “under review”.
Furthermore, Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman observed that a Pacer was better than no train in many communities – further evidence of the disarray epitomised by last summer’s unprecedented delays and disruption when new timetables were introduced.
But this latest episode, just one of many, indicates why second best – or the South’s scraps – are unacceptable and the next Prime Minister will be judged here by their actions rather than their words.
As the Power Up The North campaign, an unprecedented collaboration between The Yorkshire Post and 33 newspapers, has demonstrated, the Northern Powerhouse will never get out of economic first gear unless it is given sustained political support to tackle all those regional inequalities from crumbling classrooms to Pacers which are holding this region back.
Yet, while it is hoped that the next PM will appoint a Northern Powerhouse Minister to the Cabinet to speak up for the 15 million people who live and work here, and recognise the link between transport, infrastructure, skills, social mobility and jobs, both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt can give one undertaking tonight in York – trains permitting. Though neither man appears willing to name their prospective Cabinet at this stage, they can do themselves – and this country – a huge favour by confirming that Chris Grayling (a Johnson supporter) will not be Transport Secretary, or given any position of responsibility, in their administration.
After all, the only thing more unreliable than the trains here is any policy devised by Failing Grayling. And if they don’t realise that, they are frankly unfit to be PM.