GRANT Shapps has one small advantage over his predecessor as Transport Secretary. His name is not Chris Grayling.
Yet his Government’s commitments to the Northern Powerhouse are being derailed by inaction over the appalling state of day-to-day rail services here.
And it raises this conundrum: just when will Ministers to take back control of failing rail franchises?
It is a recurring question – still unanswered – which takes on added urgency when the latest performance data is set in the context of the Government’s promise Queen’s Speech to scrap the current rail franchising system.
In the last four-week period, just 35 per cent of TransPennine Express services across the North were on ‘time’. This despite a growing outcry over the salary package of chief executive Leo Goodwin reportedly rising 44 per cent from £229,000 to £331,000.
What an insult when two-thirds of his trains are routinely late and shame on the shareholders at FirstGroup plc who approved this reward for failure – they have clearly never been at the mercy of TPE trains.
As for Northern, 57 per cent of commuter services were on ‘time’ - just 0.2 per cent better than the aftermath of last year’s botched timetable changes. And these are average figures – they’re much worse in some areas.
Ominously, the belated introduction of new rolling stock has not brought about any marked improvement in performance, further suggesting ineffective management is a serious issue, as anger grows that Northern’s decrepid Pacer trains – the symbol of the North-South divide and due to be scrapped for good by the end of 2019 – will still be in widespread use next year.
Yet, set in the context of a nationwide average of 66.3 per cent, this level of reliability is simply unacceptable and would not be tolerated by Ministers in the South East. And though the Queen’s Speech does identify rail reform as a priority – progress of sorts from the ‘Failing Grayling’ era – it is just a ruse to buy Ministers time.
This was confirmed when Mr Shapps revealed that the “intention” is to “publish a White Paper focused on delivering Keith Williams’ recommendations for revolutionary reform”. He added: “Reform of this scale will take time...”
Why? What the Transport Secretary plans to do is wait for the Williams report – the former British Airways boss is undertaking a root and branch review of the rail network – before proposing a White Paper which, in fact, is a statement of intent rather than a set of definitive laws.
It spoke volumes that the gasps of astonishment were audible when Mr Shapps told the BBC’s ill-tempered Question Time programme last week: “We are putting a huge multi-billion package into building a lot more Northern rail.”
Yes, Northern Powerhouse Rail has the potential to be transformative but short-term improvements to reliability matter just as much as long-term investment – and reform – if public trust is to be maintained. This means the Transport Secretary having the power to strip operators of their franchises if performance targets are breached. He shouldn’t have to wait for Williams to report – or the passage of new legislation through Parliament which can make the Pacer trains appear fast.
Currently Ministers can only intervene if a rail operator suffers financial failure like those which have afflicted the East Coast Main Line – a depressing prospect when the TPE franchise, complete with Goodwin’s totally obscene salary, is due to last until 2023. Northern’s deal is set to expire in 2025.
At the same time, the Government should forbid the senior staff of failed franchises – let’s say well-paid executives earning in excess of £100,000 for starters – from applying for other senior roles jobs in the transport industry. That cannot be right – there must be proper accountability to stop such executives catching one gravy train after another.
And, if the Minister won’t listen to this columnist, perhaps he will take note of the apologetic guard on a Guiseley to Bradford train last week. Though the train was (in fairness) on time, it reeked of decay and had not been cleaned for days – possibly longer – as condensation poured off the ceiling and windows. Even the homeless might have thought twice about using it for shelter.
As the conductor checked tickets, they admitted: “We should probably be paying you to travel with us.” A sentiment which will chime with all commuters here paying over the odds for third-rate services, it explains why Grant Shapps should be showing far greater urgency.
If not, rail users will conclude that he is (nearly) as unreliable as Chris Grayling – the politician whose promises to scrap the Pacers proved worthless – or one of the many overcrowded, late-running rush-hour trains stopping the Northern Powerhouse in its tracks. It’s that serious.
Tom Richmond is the Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. Follow @OpinionYP on Twitter.