EVEN though rail operator Northern claims that its performance is improving – it couldn’t get much worse, could it? – the firm’s reputation is doing lasting damage to this region.
This much was made clear when Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester metro-mayor, went on national TV to demand that the operator be stripped of its franchise after the latest disruption hit people attending sporting, tourism and cultural events on the North’s big weekend of the year.
“A Bank Holiday weekend with events taking place across the North and what do we get?” he asked. “Widespread cancellations on our rail network. It wouldn’t be allowed to happen in London. What will it take for the Government to do something?”
It’s a very fair question and I have spent much of the past week trying to ascertain the threshold that has to be reached to trigger ministerial intervention by Grant Shapps, the new Secretary of State.
Apparently I was mistaken. All the Department for Transport will tell me – in response to questions – is this: “We monitor all franchises to ensure they deliver on their franchise commitments. Where a franchise is found to be at fault, we will not hesitate to take appropriate action.”
Like you, I’m none the wiser about the Government’s definition of the word ‘fault’ which online dictionaries define as “an unattractive or unsatisfactory feature, especially in a piece of work or in a person’s character” or “responsibility for an accident or misfortune”.
Yet, from July 21 until August 17, some 5,205 of Northern trains – 7.4 per cent of all scheduled services – were ‘short-formed’, thereby exacerbating overcrowding on commuter routes as new rolling stock begins (slowly) to replace the outdated Pacer antiquities. Any ‘fault’ here, Mr Shapps?
It gets worse. In this same period, 4,121 trains – 5.6 per cent of the number of services that were due to operate – were cancelled. Who is at ‘fault’ here, Mr Shapps?
And, as for punctuality, just 77.9 per cent of trains reached their destination within five minutes of their schedule. This basically means that one in four services were more than five minutes late. When data is broken down further, just 49.9 per cent – less than half – were on time. Does this qualify as a ‘fault’, Mr Shapps?
More than a year after the timetable overhaul exacerbated longstanding reliability issues in the rail network, it beggars belief that there do not appear to be specific performance targets in these Government-awarded franchises. And if this is what passengers can expect until Northern’s franchise ends in 2025, let me tell Mr Shapps the only people at ‘fault’ – that word again – will be the Transport Secretary, his inept predecessor Chris Grayling and the operator’s management who continue to be rewarded for failure.
As such, the law needs to be changed so all franchises are subject to reliability and punctuality targets being met – and the word ‘fault’ being clearly defined for a rail industry which specialises in buckpassing rather than running sufficient trains on time.
WHEN Andy Burnham called for Northern to be stripped of its rail franchise, the former Cabinet Minister was speaking very forcefully, and persuasively, in his capacity as Greater Manchester’s metro mayor.
He also had the endorsement of his counterpart from Liverpool and was effectively representing the whole of the North because the continuing devolution deadlock on this side of the Pennines means Yorkshire is still bereft of a political figurehead who can speak for this county nationally and internationally.
ANOTHER social care update. Asked if the long-overdue Green Paper would be published this year, Boris Johnson avoided answering the question. The PM simply said: “We are working very hard on it.” Given the time that the Tory leader has devoted to the other policy priorities that he cited on taking office, this obfuscation is ominous.
BORIS Johnson is not the only party leader with a lot to answer for. The same applies to Jeremy Corbyn. If Labour had a more moderate leader in post, I suspect the Tories would no longer be in power.
And if it had anyone remotely consensual as its leader today, I suspect the Opposition parties would find it easier to gain sufficient support to bring down the Government in a vote of no confidence. Instead, Mr Corbyn remains the Prime Minister’s best asset. What a mess.
NOT only does the sidelining of Parliament risk setting a dangerous precedent, but so, too, does the reluctance of Boris Johnson – and Jeremy Corbyn – to undertake set-piece TV or radio interviews where they can be cross-examined by a tough inquisitor like John Humphrys.
On the day Parliament was prorogued, the PM did a short pre-arranged clip with Sky News – which was then pooled with other broadcasters – while the Labour leader gave a soundbite to a camera crew waiting outside his Islington home. In the past, party leaders regularly appeared on the Today programme, Channel 4 News and also Newsnight – even at times of political crisis. Now they appear to be running scared.
TALKING of the prorogation of Parliament, the House of Commons was not due to sit for three weeks from September 16 so MPs can attend the party conferences.
If these annual fundraising jamborees were taking place over successive weekends, as they should, it would have been much harder for Boris Johnson to circumvent Parliament over Brexit.