THE continuing chaos on our railways in the North has had a major impact on businesses, commuters and families – an unprecedented number of hours of lost productivity, job seekers unable to get to interviews and parents unable to get home to see their children or put them to bed.
It has been completely unacceptable and damaging to the promising progress we have been making to ensure the Northern Powerhouse delivers its full potential to the whole of the UK in economic terms.
It is clear to me where the root causes are, and those responsible must accept their mistakes and learn from them.
The delays by Network Rail in completing electrification and engineering works, particularly between Blackpool and Preston and in the Bolton corridor, meant that the train operators were faced with an impossible task.
Back in January, it became clear a significant number of promised electrified lines would still need diesel trains, trains needed elsewhere in the North, for much longer.
Operator Northern has received its fair share of criticism for its handling of the crisis, but the fact that the timetables were signed off too late for them to be able to smoothly roll out a new schedule meant that their hands were tied. We are now facing disruption until November – a miserable and detrimental situation for far too many people.
Secretary of State Chris Grayling has been heavily criticised for his department’s handling of the situation, and for two weeks running the issues have been raised by the North’s MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Poor connectivity, both in transport and digital terms, is hampering the Northern Powerhouse from realising its economic potential and is causing major headaches for employers of all sizes. We can’t step back from making transport improvements, despite the fact Network Rail have failed us, alongside their contractors.
Thankfully, there is a clear solution. Transport for the North (TfN) was set up by then-Chancellor George Osborne – chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership – in 2014 and has since been officially established as the UK’s first ever statutory sub-national transport body.
Yet its level of influence over Northern transport is still too constrained. It has no control over the performance of Network Rail, and its first transport plan for the North needs more power behind it to make sure the infrastructure it recommends is built on time, on budget.
The Government must give TfN the full powers and responsibilities to take control of all aspects of Northern transport infrastructure. Only this will ensure that the shameful scenes at stations all across the region are not repeated. TfN have the know-how, the expertise and the understanding of the needs of our economy to manage the performance of Network Rail.
It is what true devolution is all about – the North stepping up and being responsible for its own destiny. Under our proposals, TfN would be ultimately accountable for the success or failure of rail delivery across the North – an onerous and important role.
But it’s what they have been set up to do. And the powerful voices who have driven forward the One North campaign so passionately championed by this newspaper will have vital roles to play – many of our council leaders and Metro Mayors sit on the TfN Board and therefore have the perfect opportunity to make sure Northern transport is properly managed.
The Blake Review is critical to making sure we never again see the terrible scenes witnessed across the North in the past few weeks. Led by Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, and to be delivered in partnership with Rail Minister Jo Johnson, this crucial review needs to be supported by all across the North to ensure we get the best possible outcome. It must be another powerful example of the North coming together as one to deliver for our people.
In the meantime, the Department for Transport handing over all the supervisory responsibilities over the unfinished sections of Northern Hub work and for the trans-Pennine route upgrade is essential.
The Government has rightly trumpeted the success of the Ordsall Chord, linking Manchester’s three stations, but all the related infrastructure in that same corridor at Deansgate, which serves much of the North when crossing Manchester, has been left unfinished.
The franchise agreements signed with Northern and TransPennine Express are ambitious and not the problem, it is again the fact that the North does have not control. The Department for Transport needs to accept that change needs to be made.
Powerful, influential figures from across the North coming together with one voice; business, civil society and civic leaders together with our parliamentarians. This is the bedrock of the Northern Powerhouse. Trains are just the start – employing the same, collaborative approach to education, skills, health, innovation and productivity will deliver a Northern Powerhouse we can all be proud to be part of.
Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.