Time to ban rail operators if they don’t up their game across the North - Andrew Vine

THERE’S one thing that unites all of us who work, irrespective of the jobs we do – it’s that if we fail to perform, we’re out.

Should TransPennine Express lose its franchise?
Should TransPennine Express lose its franchise?

We’ll be sent down the road, or our contract won’t be renewed. Brutal though that can seem, it’s a fact of life and one of the factors that keeps us on our toes, doing our jobs the best we can.

And if a company fails to perform, it suffers in the same way because it is effectively sacked by the public.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Travellers continue to get a raw deal from Northern and TransPennine Express.

Its customers go elsewhere, its business goes down the toilet and ultimately it shuts up shop. Tough, but another fact of life.

Except, that is, if it’s a rail company, which can fail to do its job over and over again, as can its most senior people, but seemingly there is never any real sanction.

Should TransPennine Express be stripped of its franchise?

Nobody loses their job or contract and the company is immune from consumer pressure. Customers cannot threaten to take their business elsewhere, as they can with most other companies which let them down, because there is nowhere else to go.

If I want to catch a train, say, from Leeds to Harrogate or Ilkley, I have no choice but to use Northern. If a day out at Scarborough beckons, it has to be TransPennine Express.

Not that I’d venture onto one of their Scarborough services again any time soon after an appalling summer journey, standing all the way there and back on two hideously-overcrowded, late-running trains.

These two companies have monopolies on the routes they run. It was always a farcical aspect of rail privatisation that it mostly did nothing to increase consumer choice, which would make operators compete to be the best in order to win customers.

The inside of the TransPennine Express control room.

Instead, a monolithic state-run railway beset by inefficiencies was simply swapped for private operators who can get away with actually being worse than the often unfairly-derided British Rail.

We’re stuck with Northern until 2025, and TransPennine until 2023, when their respective franchises expire. Unless they fail financially, those franchises cannot be taken away from them, irrespective of how badly they perform.

Even if the rules were changed to make poor performance grounds for them losing the right to run services, it would probably only apply from the next round of franchising when it would be part of a new contractual agreement.

So commuters who have no option but to use these two companies have to grin and bear the overcrowding, the cancellations, the delays. And businesses have to accept that poor services are a brake on their productivity and profitability, however much that irks them.

And the political and civic leaders who yearn to make the Northern Powerhouse a reality so that the people of Yorkshire and the wider north have a brighter future can only seethe with frustration because – for as long as services as lousy as these continue – creating it is only a fondly-held dream.

It defies belief that Northern and TransPennine services remain as bad now as they were a year ago in the aftermath of the chaos over new timetables.

Never again, said the companies. Lessons will be learned. We’re committed to improvements – all the familiar platitudes were trotted out, but the fact is things haven’t really changed.

Almost 13 per cent of TransPennine services have been cancelled over the past month and more than five per cent of Northern’s.

If a level of service this bad was on offer to commuters heading to work in London, there would be a political outcry. Questions would be asked in the Commons and ministers would be under pressure from all sides to make it clear to the companies concerned that matters needed to improve urgently.

Boris Johnson said on Friday that metropolitan mayors will have control of regional rail, which is welcome, but in the meantime his Government needs to put Northern and TransPennine under pressure to do what they are being paid for. Only that will achieve results since it is impossible to have any faith in these two companies to make the improvements that Yorkshire’s long-suffering rail passengers deserve.

It is really no surprise that the one Labour policy that really struck home with voters at the last election was bringing the railways back into public ownership. If the Government is to counter the appeal of that policy to voters whenever the next election comes, it needs to get tough with Northern and TransPennine, and start acting like a consumer champion.

One way to do that would be to tell these two companies in no uncertain terms that unless they radically up their game, they will be excluded from bidding for the franchises again – sometimes only the threat of being sacked makes those not doing their jobs properly really sit up and listen.