This already smacks of PR-spun gesture politics to get the Government back on track. First Mrs May’s team let it be known a fortnight ago that she was considering some form of inquiry into rail franchises because she was in listening mode. Yet she and her officials have still not responded to the unprecedented joint editorial published by The Yorkshire Post, and newspapers across the North, more than three months ago at the height of the chaos here. Talk about contemptuous.
Then The Sun was briefed on Saturday – presumably by the Department for Transport – that the review will be headed by former British Airways boss Keith Williams, the current deputy chairman of troubled department store John Lewis.
Now it emerges that there will be an official announcement later this week and that the inquiry into the future of rail franchises will take at least a year to complete. Not only is this process already slower than many of the North’s trains – but it’s typical of Mr Grayling’s contempt of Parliament that he’s chosen to make this announcement when the House of Commons is in recess so the critique’s terms of reference cannot be scrutinised by MPs. Macavity strikes again.
And, just like countless policy studies previously commissioned by Ministers on a range of issues, notably social care and pensions, there’s no guarantee that any findings will be implemented – they’re simply a ruse to buy failing politicians time, hence the ongoing review into the causes of the timetable turmoil being followed by, you’ve guessed it, another review into franchising flaws.
If the Government is committed to listening, it doesn’t need to hire Mr Williams. Just ask Northern and TransPennine Express users here. Experts in rail mismanagement, all they want is for more trains to run on time now official figures confirm punctuality is at a 12-year low across the country, clear communication when there are delays and customer service commensurate with fare increases.
The proposed appointment of Richard George, the former director of transport for the 2012 London Olympics, as a troubleshooter for the North’s railways is welcome – it’s another measure first proposed by this newspaper weeks ago.
After all, train services in the capital during the Olympics were gold medal standard and the long-term ambition should be for this region to have a rail network comparable with the rest of the country. Yet Mr George’s role, once formally confirmed, will only work if he has the necessary powers.
He must have the right to end ticket injustices – like those passengers in Slaithwaite and Marsden penalised by TPE conductors if, following cancellations, they have to travel eastwards to Huddersfield, away from their destination, before catching a faster train back across the Pennines to Manchester. He needs to oversee passenger complaints for a period to understand the problems for himself.
Mr George must also have the authority to take action against TPE and Northern when trains don’t reach their final destination or there’s overcrowding when rush-hour trains are short-formed because there’s a shortage of carriages – the Office of Road and Rail, the supposed regulator, has proved next to useless.
And Mr George – together with Transport for the North – must have the authority to sign off timetable changes. Network Rail did not have any say when the troubled East Coast Main Line franchise was last put out to tender with disastrous consequences – there must be no repeat of this year’s myriad mistakes or train operators being repeatedly allowed to over-promise and under-deliver.
I could go on but confidential documents circulated at last week’s Transport for the North board meeting in Sheffield did, once the incessant acronyms had been decoded, make clear the size – and importance – of transforming rail services here.
“There is considerable variability in journey times by rail across the North. Often journeys can be slower than an off-peak car equivalent which makes rail unattractive to use,” says one report.
Another section criticises TPE’s lamentable record over the past year (despite MD Leo Goodwin qualifying for a £36,000 bonus). It says just 60 per cent of trains arrived at their termination within a minute of their schedule.
And, elsewhere, there’s also a warning that plans by Mr Grayling to scrap the previously promised electrification of the trans-Pennine route would lead, in fact, to longer journey times.
Using diesel trains between Huddersfield and Stalybridge would, says policy papers discussed by TfN, extend journey times by a minute and, in doing so, risk holding up express trains travelling from Leeds to Manchester.
Yes, the Government does need a short and sharp review into rail franchising – but this must not come at the expense of immediate action, and the proper accountability of officials, to ensure that the priorities of passengers are implemented immediately and not shunted into the political sidings by Ministers still in denial about the unacceptable state of the North’s rail network.