Tom Richmond: No, Theresa May, you can't just shunt rail chaos into past as Northern tries to silence critics

THERESA MAY had clearly been failed by her advisors '“ and Chris Grayling '“ when she used the past tense at Prime Minister's Questions to describe the 'unacceptable' state of the North's railways.

Passengers at Leeds station await information on late trains.
Passengers at Leeds station await information on late trains.

For the benefit of the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary, services on Northern and TransPennine Express routes continue to be in chaos with random cancellations following this May’s timetable change. There’s little confidence that this month’s overhaul, or Government review, will improve matters ahead of the insulting 3.1 per cent New Year fare hike that is now confirmed.

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And the public’s anger is epitomised by Northern’s treatment of Vanessa Bremner who has kept a diary of despair over the past six months, and which was featured in The Yorkshire Post on Tuesday.

Operator Northern's customer service has been called into question.

Her daily trip from Doncaster to Leeds has become such a living nightmare, and so damaging to her health because of the resulting stress, that she’s one of the passengers who regularly uses Twitter to demand an explanation from Northern about the reason for late or cancelled trains because she’s fed up at being fobbed off.

In doing so, she provides a running commentary on when drivers turn up – if at all – and how the reasons given for delays invariably don’t tally with the evidence before her eyes. She regularly condemns the state of the ancient Pacer trains that would not be allowed to operate near London.

Imagine her bewilderment – and the surprise of her fellow commuters – when the operator of the @northernassist service sent out this tweet: “Hi Vanessa, though we do understand your frustration in this regard, we do have a policy against spamming the Social Media feed, please refrain from doing this or we will be forced to block your account.”

What no one at Northern seems to grasp is that the only reason she posts virtually every day is because her train is cancelled or delayed. Ms Bremner tweets the firm for help and advice, not for abuse from a contemptuous operator which should be apologising and compensating her instead of firing off threatening messages in the hope of silencing her. She tells me she’s been greatly heartened by the public reaction to her plight.

Graeme Bandeira's latest cartoon.

Tellingly, a spokesman for Northern refused to confirm who authorised the tweet in question – or how many people have been ‘blocked’ by the company in the past year. They said an official was meeting Ms Bremner.

Yet, judging by the latest performance data, the operator’s record on customer service is actually deteriorating. Between April and June this year, there was a 63 per cent increase in passengers complaints to Northern according to the Office of Road and Rail compared to the corresponding period in 2017. Only the Heathrow Express had a worse record.

However, while the botched introduction of the new timetable will have been a contributory factor, the fact that Leeds, Huddersfield, Sheffield and York all featured this week in the list of the 10 worst performing main stations in the country – and the stations with the best services were all in London – proves that Mrs May is very much mistaken if she thinks, or is led to believe, that services are back on track here.

They’re not – and they won’t be until the ethos of operators like Northern is changed so passengers like Vanessa Bremner are valued and respected.

THE £37m cut in public funding to the nation’s libraries in the past year doesn’t, I’m afraid, surprise me. I noted earlier this year that I was very underwhelmed when John Glen, a very junior culture minister, responded to Commons questions from Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman by struggling to find any enthusiasm for the service.

Yet, when I checked to see if Mr Glen was still in post, I was shocked to discover that he had been promoted – and made Economic Secretary to the Treasury.

He’s clearly made such an impression that I missed the announcement.

Unless the Tories regard libraries as an investment, and can help turn these fantastic buildings and assets into community hubs relevant to 21st century society and needs, Ministers like him will struggle to be taken more seriously.

I’M afraid Theresa May appears to be paying a heavy political – and personal – price for her reluctance to involve Labour, or business leaders, in Brexit negotiations when tasked with making sense of the mess left by David Cameron.

By shunning Labour, she’s allowed Jeremy Corbyn’s party to absolve itself of any responsibility and simply criticise anything that Mrs May proposes. Now she’s dependent on his MPs to get her deal through the Commons. No chance.

And having been ambivalent towards the interests of business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs, the people who create the nation’s wealth, she hopes their support will swing sceptical MPs towards her way of thinking. Talk about leaving it late in the day...

WHEN it comes to Brexit sanctimony, recent utterances by Shami Chakrabarti and Arlene Foster take some beating.

Baroness Chakrabarti, a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, had the temerity to describe herself a ‘democrat’ when she owes her place in the unelected House of Lords to patronage.

And Ms Foster heads Northern Ireland’s DUP, the party holding Theresa May to ransom over Brexit while refusing to restore power-sharing arrangements at Stormont after a £400m green energy scandal presided over by its now apologetic leader.

Neither woman is, frankly, in a position to lecture the rest of the country.

SO HS2 passengers could have Amazon orders delivered to their seat. What could possibly go wrong?