Jim O'Neill: Back to normal is not good enough. The North needs a railway that can power the region forward

ALMOST 10 weeks have passed since new timetable changes plunged the North's railways into complete chaos, but it is clear to me that the issue has not gone away and must not go away.

Commuters at Horsforth station - when will the Government allow this region to take control of rail services?

No parent who has missed their child’s bedtime, no worker forced to change jobs or miss out on employment opportunities, no business whose staff couldn’t make it in day after day will ever forget the six weeks of carnage that ground the Northern Powerhouse to a halt.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership will publish a paper on Monday, July 30, setting out the financial impact the timetabling crisis has had on companies of all sizes across the North.

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The number of lost hours of productivity, and the impact on how companies operate, will be revealed. It provides a further reminder of just how serious the problems were, and how our businesses rely on reliable transport infrastructure simply to exist, never mind grow.

Pressure is growing on Theresa May and Chris Grayling to act over the region's rail services.

The whole point of the Northern Powerhouse is to create a true single market between our major urban clusters to foster a market that would change the national economic performance of the UK, and create higher standards of living for all those in the region.

The centre of Leeds is less than 40 miles from the centre of Manchester – around the same length as the Central Line in London – and between them are populous cities like Bradford and many other towns. Similar demographies sit between Liverpool and Manchester, all over the North West, and elsewhere within the Northern Powerhouse.

It is absolutely vital that the Northern Powerhouse has a better educated workforce and improved skills capability but – at the core – it requires a dramatically improved transport network and its own transport entity to be responsible for this network.

This was the ambition of those of us who created the idea, and it must be the vision of what this or any government in Westminster delivers. After this latest fiasco of timetable errors, and horrific interruptions to the daily lives of millions of people, the time for excuses and shifting blame has gone. This Government needs to stop its simplistic and patronising talk and give the Northern Powerhouse the real impetus it so vitally needs.

Lord Jim O'Neill is vice chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Transport for the North was set up during my brief time in George Osborne’s Treasury, and the ambition of those of us that pushed for its establishment was to create an organisation to deliver for the Northern Powerhouse, as Transport for London has done so successfully for Greater London. It s clear to me that the only way to ensure this chaos never happens again is for Transport for the North to have much stronger powers.

The UK’s first sub-national transport body was established to run all Northern transport infrastructure, yet has been hampered by a lack of authority. Last year this newspaper revealed that 40 Department for Transport civil servants in London were working on Northern transport policy, shadowing every move TfN made.

This has to stop. Full powers of oversight for TfN would mean they could hold Network Rail to account for delayed engineering works, and make TransPennine Express and Northern accountable for poor performance.

It would mean that the unfinished sections of Northern Hub work and the trans-Pennine route upgrade could be completed. It would mean that the same business and civic leaders who have been so vocal in their criticism of the recent fiasco would have a responsibility for ensuring the North’s commuters get a fully-functioning rail service.

Of course, returning the North’s rail network to the ‘normal’ state of affairs is nowhere near good enough. Major intervention is needed if we want to create a transport network capable of delivering genuine economic change and allow the Northern Powerhouse to realise its vast potential.

Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) could be transformational; connecting our great cities with greater capacity and faster journey times. Connecting Bradford, the UK’s youngest city, through NPR could create 15,000 additional jobs, adding a further £15.5bn to the Northern economy. Moreover, it could revitalise parts of the North, delivering significant economic growth to towns and cities that have suffered from major decline over the past few decades.

Creating a single market of people from the Scottish borders to South Yorkshire and Cheshire – this is absolutely crucial to differentiating Northern Powerhouse from just being ‘the North’. It is the agglomeration theory behind my original economic concept of the Northern Powerhouse; people easily and freely moving around the diverse regions of the North, exploiting our unique strengths in key sectors such as advanced manufacturing, energy, health innovation and digital.

The initial ask to the Government for NPR is £24bn – the recommendation from the National Infrastructure Commission in their recent report.

This needs to be followed by funding the remainder of the TfN recommendation in their strategic plan – a total of £100bn by 2050, which includes existing spending on all strategic transport and wider funding streams.

Big money, no doubt. But big opportunities as well. I have been generally sympathetic to the Government about various other hiccups that have come along the way, but now my support is difficult to sustain. One of the things I learnt during over 30 years of finance is to never let a crisis go to waste, and this phrase is something government decision-makers need to adopt on the back of the timetabling fiasco.

We have the people, the structure and the resource in the North to deliver, and to demonstrate to Whitehall how NPR could unlock major economic growth. Over to you, Chris Grayling and Theresa May – the North is waiting.

Lord Jim O’Neill is a leading economist and vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.