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David Behrens: Rail chiefs go back to the playground in train wreck of excuses

David Brown, managing director of Northern Rail
David Brown, managing director of Northern Rail
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You may be weary of hearing about our region’s lamentable train service, I realise that. But not, I fancy, as much as my fellow travellers.

Perhaps the most exasperating aspect of the timetable chaos which continues to decimate services on Northern Rail and TransPennine Express in every pocket of Yorkshire, is the abject failure of anyone to accept responsibility for it.

The assertion this week by Chris Grayling, still somehow the Transport Secretary, that he “didn’t run the railways” was the last straw. He should check his job description while he still has it; his department’s own website defines it as “setting the strategic direction for the rail industry” and “managing rail franchises”.

His shameless non-acceptance perfectly summed up the playground mentality that has defined this whole mess.

David Brown, the fairly new and pre­sumably soon-to-be fairly redundant managing director of Northern Rail, was made to look like a naughty toddler caught with his hand in the biscuit tin, when he was called before a committee of scolding MPs to explain himself.

“I didn’t want to do it. Someone else made me” was the gist of what he said, as the MPs slapped his wrist and sent him into a corner to reflect on what he had done.

His contradictory explanation was an object lesson in buck-passing, but in nothing else. The overrunning-as-usual Network Rail had given three-and-a-half months’ notice of late engineering work, yet Northern had not realised until two days before the timetable changed that disaster was looming.

A stronger, more agile management would have spotted the warning signals and pushed Network Rail back, not allowed itself to be pushed around the playground.

It had, said Mr Brown, lapsing into the usual jargon, “communicated with stakeholders” about “structural weaknesses” in the timetable, in the days before. Really? Which stakeholders were these? Certainly not the passengers, whose normal routine has been sacrificed to his mistakes and whose journeys even now are being cancelled without warning by staff who can’t or won’t explain why.

There isn’t a single commuter on Northern who has not incurred expense and suffered delay because of the failure of David Brown and his team to grasp even the most rudimentary principles of project planning. And I think I can speak for all of those travellers when I say that I want my money back – or at least a proportion of it that is commensurate with the missed meetings, lost revenue and ruined evenings that the delays continue to wreak. The offer currently on the table, of a one-week extension to my season ticket, doesn’t begin to cut it.

It wasn’t as if the service offered good value in the first place: £7 to get from Menston to Leeds on a morning train that is running late and has standing-room only, is an affront.

Compensation was in the air at Thursday’s meeting of Transport for the North, the oddly low-profile public body which shares responsibility for regulating Northern. The gathering, as chaotic as the trains themselves, ended without agreement on what, if anything, passengers without season tickets would get.

Many have argued that TfN – which Sheffield’s City Region mayor, Dan Jarvis, has said is in danger of turning into a “meaningless quango” – could help to shift power from Whitehall, to those of us with a vested interest in our region. That is a sound principle, but the devil will be in the detail. Its failure to demonstrate clear leadership sends out the sort of warning signs that anyone except David Brown can spot from a mile away. Why should we believe that TfN is any better run than the rest of the industry?

It’s a fair question, when you consider that until a year ago, its chief executive was none other than David Brown. He hopped off one ride in the playground and straight on to another.

If this tells us anything, it is that the railways in the North need not just new franchisees but different people in charge of them. A new logo on the sides of the trains won’t wash this time.

You and I might not be able to influence this directly, but we can all register a playground protest of our own: the next time one of Northern’s officious inspectors asks to see your ticket, tell him you want to see the compensation first.