I WANT to lay my cards on the table from the off. I want a better rail network for the North and as part of that Pacers must be booted off the railways.
But that can only happen when commuters can be guaranteed a reliable replacement service. That’s why we have had to accept that Northern will maintain a skeleton crew of Pacers on the rail network in the North into the start of next year.
I share the frustration of passengers who say that these buses on wheels should have been phased out a long time ago. But I also believe that those leaders, who jointly manage the franchise, should agree that our priority must be ensuring passengers have a reliable service, even if this means keeping older trains for slightly longer than originally planned.
I am not happy with it but I am also accepting of the truth of the situation.
We must not forget that significant positive steps have been made to upgrade the rail network in the North. We are committed to reversing decades of under-investment, providing a record £13bn by 2020 to improve transport networks across the North. We’ve also committed to driving forward Northern Powerhouse Rail, funding the first step with a Manchester to Leeds route.
Furthermore, by the end of 2019, there will be 62 new trains on the Northern network, giving people the modern fleet they deserve. More comfortable seats, on-board wifi and better information all mean more comfortable, reliable journeys for those who use them day-in, day-out. These are the trains the North has been crying out for.
This massive investment, to replace and improve a huge proportion of the trains that connect the North, is not a simple task and as such there are many hurdles that need to be overcome.
The choice facing us is to either keep a small, but vital, number of outdated trains on the network – maintaining services whilst the last of the new trains come into play, or to drag them off the rails to the scrapheap without a replacement being in place, leaving passengers abandoned and lines empty.
With these two options on the table, our hand has been reluctantly forced. At the heart of this decision, as with all our decisions over the railway, we want to put passengers first and I have demanded action as quickly as possible. We now have assurances from Northern that Pacers will be coming off the network by the end of May 2020.
Despite their often negative image, Pacers, in their years of service, have served a key purpose. There are many rail lines that may have been forced to close due to tight budgets. Many were less busy than other lines, but to the passengers that used them they are no less vital. Pacers have played an important role in keeping those lines open.
Now, as we remove the Pacers from our network, we are looking to preserve a small handful to pass on to the communities they have served for all these years.
That is why we have organised a competition to transform a Pacer, providing up to three communities across the North with a key asset. We have received a myriad of entries, ranging from schools and charities to local community groups. This competition means that whilst we mark the retirement of the trains and welcome a new fleet, local communities can benefit from them for years to come.
Ultimately all these changes, including retiring the Pacers and delivering new investment, is just part of a wider ambition; giving the railways of the North back to the people of the North.
As the Prime Minister recently announced, it is time for the North to have a greater say in how the trains are run. That could see more influence and responsibility for metro mayors or local combined authorities, ensuring the people who use these services help run them.
On local lines in metropolitan areas, we will give greater control over fares, service patterns, trains and stations. And in those rural areas, outside the towns and cities, we will also look to empower communities, helping county councils take on similar roles and transferring local branch lines to community rail partnerships.
We also recently took the decisive step of starting contingency plans for the future of the Northern franchise. While that process will take time, we will ensure whatever decision is compatible with that ambition. And it will be focused on doing whatever will deliver the best service for passengers
That’s why I absolutely believe there will be a brighter future for rail in the North. We can all rest assured that Pacers will not be part of it.