THE next Transport Secretary is being urged by a Yorkshire MP to “bang heads together” at the body that was set up to oversee improvements to services and represent the interests of passengers on the East Coast Main Line.
Keighley MP John Grogan spoke out after it emerged that the route’s Supervisory Board – launched in a blaze of publicity in August 2017 – has not formally met since November last year.
Mr Grogan says the body, which was chaired by the then Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Sir Gary Verity, should have intervened to halt the closure of the railway route over the busy August Bank Holiday weekend so tens of thousands of sports fans, festival goers and holiday-makers don’t have their travel plans seriously disrupted.
It was set up in the wake of declining reliability and punctuality on the London to Scotland route, culminating with rail operators Virgin and Stagecoach terminating their franchise and being replaced by the state-owned London North Eastern Railway (LNER).
“When the East Coast Supervisory Board was set up in 2017 it was done with great fanfare,” Mr Grogan told The Yorkshire Post. “Making a difference regarding the timings of shutdowns on the line was clearly in its remit and yet it does not seem to have had a meaningful discussion about the forthcoming shutdown .
“The high hopes that the Board would be the major voice representing the passenger interest on the line have clearly not been fulfilled. The fact that it last met in November 2018 tells its own story .
“Whoever becomes the new Secretary of State for Transport once the new Prime Minister is appointed needs to bang some heads together if the Supervisory Board is not to be widely seen as a public relations sticking plaster.”
When the organisation was launched, Rob McIntosh, Network Rail’s area managing director, said: “Britain’s railway is ever more important to economic growth so, working together, we are determined to deliver more for customer and communities.
“The board will work together with one voice to best represent customers the length of the East Coast Main Line, bringing track and train closer together, driving improvements and holding the industry to account.”
Membership included Network Rail executives, representatives from train companies operating on the route and leading business figures.
The initiative was welcomed at the time by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling who described it was “excellent news for passengers between Scotland, the North East, Yorkshire and London”.
And Sir Gary, who resigned his post at Welcome to Yorkshire in March in the wake of an expenses scandal, said he was “looking forward” to helping “deliver a successful next chapter in the history of East Coast Main Line”.
A Network Rail spokesperson said the Board was given an update on the planned King’s Cross improvements last November – and that subsequent updates had taken place by “correspondence”.
She confirmed that it had not met since then due to “Sir Gary Verity’s health problems” – and that a discussion will be held about his future “involvement with the rail industry when the timing is appropriate”.
Asked why the Board had not met in Sir Gary’s absence, she added: “We are continuing to work with the Government about arrangements for the East Coast Partnership and arrangements for the future governance of the line.”
Meanwhile Welcome to Yorkshire commercial director, Peter Dodd, said the organisation “was made aware of potential issues” and “worked incredibly hard” to find a way to “avoid or minimise any disruption”. He added: “We urge anyone travelling to or across Yorkshire that weekend, for the many brilliant events taking place, to consider their travel options carefully and plan well in advance.”
NETWORK RAIL’S RESPONSE
NETWORK Rail directors say Yorkshire tourism will reap the rewards when major engineering work on the East Coast Main Line is completed.
Officials say they have been speaking to the organisers of high-profile sporting and cultural events to discuss the potential impact on visitors to this region. Belatedly, they only met York Racecourse executives as recently as Thursday.
The furious reaction of Yorkshire tourist leaders, who claim they were given insufficient notice, comes a fortnight after Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines conceded that the North had suffered “a brutal couple of years”.
But officials say other routes will be open and maintain that “fewer passengers travel on a Bank Holiday”.
Network Rail’s regional managing director Rob McIntosh told The Yorkshire Post. “We understand work like this has a direct impact upon the businesses, communities and passengers we serve and we always work to keep disruption to a minimum.
“This work is vital and will bring long-term benefits for all users of the route, including thousands more seats and faster and more reliable journeys. It will allow us to carry on driving Yorkshire’s economy and tourism for years to come.
“This is the start of the biggest upgrade to the line in a generation and projects on this scale inevitably bring some disruption. We don’t want anyone to be disappointed, so we are urging any passengers who need to travel to or from London to plan ahead.”
Network Rail say changes to the signalling system, with control passed from King’s Cross to its state-of-the-art centre at York, will enhance reliability when complete and mean LNER’s new fleet of Azuma trains can finally operate north of York.
It says work has been going on for a year at King’s Cross without disruption to passengers. “Once completed, it will create capacity for up to 10,000 extra seats a day on long-distance services. This means even more potential tourist traffic for Yorkshire, as well as improved links for businesses” said a spokeswoman.
On the likely impact on tourism, she said: “We’re also talking more widely with Welcome to Yorkshire to see how we can support promotion of the region and the benefits that this investment work will bring to passengers who are travelling to our region.”
And she maintained that the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities, representing local councils served by the route, had been consulted on the timing of the stoppage. “We are working hard as an industry to make alternative provision for people who still need to travel on the affected dates. However this will not provide the same capacity into and out of London as the usual train service,” she added.
“It is vital for passengers’ safety and comfort that they are aware of the level of disruption and that they seriously consider whether their journey can be deferred. The train operators know their passenger flows which is why they are an integral part of the planning process.”