Public ownership means Northern’s failing staff now answer to us – David Behrens

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is bringing the Northern rail franchise back under public control.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is bringing the Northern rail franchise back under public control.
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No one mourned when Grant Shapps put on his black cap and passed the death sentence on rail firm Northern. It got what it deserved.

But now the dust has settled and we have entered the interregnum between private and public ownership, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the mistakes that led us here – and on what practical steps the new operator can take to learn from them.

Out with the old: a Northern train at Doncaster station.

Out with the old: a Northern train at Doncaster station.

There is a lesson here from recent history. It wasn’t Network Rail’s late-running engineering alone that caused Northern to fail; it was a toxic culture of entitlement and non-communication that festered within the company itself; of disdain for the passengers and gutlessness in the face of the unions.

It began with privatisation and fermented though four generations of franchisee. The first of those was Northern Spirit – a name largely expunged from our region’s history and indeed best forgotten. It was born in 1998 when the Regional Railways arm of British Rail was broken up.

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It had neither enough trains nor drivers and lost many of those it did have to the new freight operators who paid better. As a result, it cancelled so many services travellers had to endure an “emergency” timetable – which then became the normal one. Strikes were more frequent than trains and the firm’s miserable managing director was on record as telling Harrogate’s MP not to expect any improvement.

When Northern Spirit was bought out by Arriva, its logo on the sides of the trains was permanently painted out. But that was all. Its working practices endured and so did the culture. It remains to this day.

That’s why the conversation I had with Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris, on the day his boss was administering the last rites, rang alarm bells.

Did Whitehall appreciate, I wondered, the extent to which the problems are cultural, not financial?

How so? There is no cost implication, for instance, in having a member of staff at each station explain over the Tannoy why the next train will be late and when it can be expected – yet it has never happened. Absence of initiative has been matched by fearfulness of engaging with staff over their roles and responsibilities.

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No one takes responsibility and, as a direct result, Northern’s passenger satisfaction rating is the lowest of any operator. Yet Mr Heaton-Harris, for all his good intentions, did not speak of radical change.

He promised money would go on “improving the passenger experience” rather than simply painting over the logo again but he also said “pretty much everybody” would have the opportunity to come across to the new publicly owned operator.

What’s more, working conditions would be improved. The mess rooms were “pretty rough,” he told me. “We’re going to improve those because the staff are going on a journey as well as the passengers in this new franchise and we want to take them with us.”

Do we, though? How are we going to change the culture if the same people are to be welcomed back and set loose to go about their business as before?

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Their working practices are so deeply entrenched that not even the Dutch national operator, which runs such a model service in its own country, could make any inroads in ours when it had a hand in the franchise.

What is needed now – more urgently even than money – is reorganisation and at every level. Managers need to buck their ideas up; everyone needs to try harder. No one is blameless.

Addressing the continuing driver shortage and the anachronism of paying guards to press the door buttons instead of doing something useful, will fall to the new public operator, said Mr Heaton-Harris – specifically to Richard George, chairman of the Government’s Operator of Last Resort.

He is another survivor of British Rail and went on to run trains in the West Country, where passenger satisfaction is 14 per cent higher than on Northern.

If he is to get our figures up to theirs, he will have to knock heads together in a way that present and past managers have shown themselves incapable.

If the new world of public ownership means anything, it is that staff as well as managers are answerable to the public.

When – and only when – we begin to see tangible signs that they have understood this will we know that change is finally arriving.