Tom Richmond: Time for Rail Minister Andrew Jones to prove he’s on side of commuters

Harrogate MP Andrew Jones is the new Rail Minister.
Harrogate MP Andrew Jones is the new Rail Minister.
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ON the day that Jo Johnson – Boris’s little brother – resigned as Rail Minister last November so that he could speak out over Brexit, I wrote the editorial for The Yorkshire Post calling for him to be a replaced by a MP from the North.

For once, Theresa May listened and Harrogate MP Andrew Jones made a return journey to the Department for Transport where he had been an unspectacular junior Minister previously.

Rail Minister Andrew Jones during a recent visit to Leeds Station.

Rail Minister Andrew Jones during a recent visit to Leeds Station.

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And even though he is too embarrassed to publicise his new brief on his Twitter feed – or, God forbid, engage with the travelling public as their trains are delayed or cancelled – Mr Jones has, so far, been more conciliatory and emollient.

For now, he is still deserving of the benefit of the doubt despite Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s contempt for the North, and serial buckpassing, that will never be forgiven or forgotten here.

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Rail Minister Andrew Jones with Richard Allan, Northern's deputy managing director.

Rail Minister Andrew Jones with Richard Allan, Northern's deputy managing director.

However Mr Jones cannot remain in the shadows until he is called into service, like a bus replacement for a broken-down train, to clear up the latest Grayling gaffe. He needs to get out there, meet travellers and prove that he is on their side.

People like Vanessa Bremner who was enduring the very worst of customer service on the railways on the day that Mr Jones was presenting an optimistic outlook to MPs discussing the Transport Committee’s report on disparities in rail investment.

Regular readers will recall that she is the commuter who keeps a diary, and posts social media tweets, about the early morning 06.57 Doncaster to Leeds train which is supposed to be run by operator Northern if staff are rostered to drive it out of the sidings to the station.

The fact the train has only been on time on just five per cent occasions in the past 12 weeks is neither here nor there compared to her experience on November 6 when she says a Pacer train braked very hard – she likened it to “an emergency stop” – and she was thrown out of her seat and only just saved herself from falling to the floor.

“In doing so my entire back spasmed and I had excruciating pain down my right side,” the contracts administrator wrote in her official complaint. “Another passenger helped me to my feet and off the train. I thought it (the pain) would ease when moving but I could barely walk. It took me 30 minutes to get the 10 minutes to work.

“It did not ease and I tried to get a doctor’s appointment, but they had nothing until the following week. I had to buy painkillers, deep heat, and when it was better after three days, a massage chair (which I used for a week). It took eight days to get back to normal.”

Yet the context is critical. Such an antiquated rattle-trap train would not be tolerated elsewhere in the country, but nor would Northern’s response which emerged while Mr Jones responded to MPs.

When she chased up Northern’s response, Ms Bremner was copied into correspondence by Megan Atkinson – Northern’s Interim Stakeholder Manager (East) – that described her as “a bit of a regular” due to the frequency of her entirely justifiable and legitimate complaints.

Bit of a regular? It is not her fault Northern offers such a shoddy service and the firm has since backtracked. “We are sorry for the way our email came across,” a spokesman tells me.

And it is why people like Ms Bremner will be perturbed by the stance taken by Mr Jones when questioned about the replacement of rolling stock, like Pacers, that were introduced as a stop-gap in the 1980s and which are having their shelf-life extended by Yorkshire for yet another year because of delays introducing new trains – the consequence of late-running track upgrades in the North West.

“How individual operating companies wish to own and run their rolling stock is up to them,” he said. “But the point is that private investment and the private sector, whether it pays for a lease or for ownership, is delivering, and the public sector did not, which is why we have the long-standing Pacer trains on our network.

“It is fair to say that we had a difficult year on our rail network in 2018... but it is also fair to say that we have seen a doubling of passengers across our rail network over the past 20 or so years, which shows it is a ringing success...”

Ringing success? For, while the Minister has promised greater openness, scrutiny and transparency, punctuality and reliability levels are still totally unacceptable and the Government refuses to explain what it will take for poorly-performing operators to be stripped of their franchises.

As such, I’m going to give some free advice to Mr Jones after he told Hull North MP Diana Johnson: “I am definitely listening, and definitely Yorkshire.”

Don’t be shy, meet Vanessa Bremner, experience her commute at first hand – and agree a set of standards with her that can be applied across the rail network for the benefit of all passengers.

For, when she takes to social media to praise the reliability and comfort of her morning train as a ‘ringing success’, the Rail Minister will then know that services are belatedly getting back on track her and that our faith in him has been vindicated. But there is a long way to go until that point is reached.

tom.richmond@jpimedia.co.uk