WITH another big rail timetable change on the horizon, no doubt giving rail bosses recurring nightmares of last May’s utter chaos, it is vital that the lessons are learnt from last year.
The main lesson being that no-one took charge. Now that someone should have been the Transport Secretary – Chris Grayling. Now I know just the utterance of those two words, understandably, fills commuters with fear.
This is the man who awarded the Government’s no-deal Brexit ferry contract to a company that had no ships and has presided over the North’s number one rail franchise being operated by a company that often don’t run trains.
But when it comes down to it, he is the Transport Secretary and the buck should always stop with him.
Last summer we hit an all-time low for rail services here in Cumbria – and across the rest of the North.
The onslaught of cancellations led to depressing stories of people missing hospital appointments, benefit assessments and more. In one case, a mum literally moved to a new house from Staveley to Kendal because she couldn’t rely on the train to take her kids to school.
The Lake District’s main transport link, the Lakes Line, which links the West Coast main line to Britain’s second biggest tourist destination, was closed for an entire month (apart from the free heritage service we ran with the brilliant guys at West Coast Railways).
Throughout those months Northern showed their complete disregard for passengers and for the importance of the North’s tourism economy.
And yet nearly a year on, Northern are still in charge and nothing has changed.
Failure to punish Northern for their abysmal service by the Secretary of State means that there has been no incentive for them to improve.
That is why I presented a Bill to the House of Commons on Friday which would make it significantly easier for the Government to strip failing rail companies of their franchises.
My Bill would mean that the Transport Secretary would no longer be able to shy away from being ultimately responsible for making sure people have a decent train service.
It would force Mr Grayling to earn the generous ministerial salary he has grown accustomed to. It would also give the Government the power to break up the large, unworkable franchises to create smaller operators who are better able to handle the problems of running a railway.
Just imagine what kind of rail service we could create if the Government had the power to strip failing rail companies of their franchise?
We could create a franchise system that doesn’t just favour those who bid the highest amount for contracts – as happened with Virgin/Stagecoach on the East Coast Main Line.
We could empower local people to have a say in running the line, whether through partnerships with local authorities, private companies or passenger-run mutuals.
We could also build a closer relationship between track and train, as has already been trialled in some parts of the network.
Indeed, if the rail company has a closer relationship with and a more meaningful responsibility for the track then issues likely to cause problems will be fixed more quickly.
Good franchise-holders should also be allowed to roll-on their contracts as well, so that if they’re performing well they’re not at risk of losing their franchise to a higher bidder.
My challenge over the coming months will be to build support for these proposals.
I am up for it, and I am confident that many of my colleagues from across the House of Commons will be receptive to this proposal.
But there is also a challenge to the Transport Secretary.
There can be no doubt that in any other period in British politics, Chris Grayling would not still be in his job.
His reputation has suffered a great deal in the past three years.
So, if he actually cares about leaving some kind of positive legacy on the rail industry or improving the lives of passengers, then this is his chance.
Over to you, Minister…
Tim Farron is the Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, a rural seat which includes parts of the Yorkshire Dales.