Tim Farron: Break up rail franchise that is failing the North

A Northern Rail train
A Northern Rail train
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You couldn’t make it up. During a week of rail chaos for vast swathes of northern commuters, the Tories announce a major investment in the South East with the oft-repeated promise to expand Heathrow with a new third runway. The North of England has been crying out for this sort of investment in transport for years.

However, instead of real investment the Transport Secretary has promised an inquiry into the “major failures” by rail operator Northern. It appears he has forgotten that he is responsible for making the trains run on time.

Similarly, any excuse from the boss of Northern citing that the changes to the timetable needed to “bed in” won’t cut it. The public want to see someone take responsibility.

The announcement of compensation is therefore a good start, but it is the least commuters should expect when a rail company fails to provide the service it is obliged to run. If the new timetable genuinely needs time to “bed in” then greater compensation will be needed. I believe a significantly reduced fare regime should be brought in until the network is functioning efficiently. That might give Northern the incentive to get on with the job.

It is, however, the personal stories of this crisis that get to me. My email inbox and postbag are inundated with messages from all those who rely on the train. They need it to get them to school, particularly during the exam season, as it is now. Then there are those who are missing work, and others vital appointments, because the train company cannot run a decent service.

As the summer season approaches improvements will be needed fast, otherwise we could face national embarrassment. The millions of tourists who flood to my patch of the Lake District, and the North of England as a whole, will struggle to get to their destinations.

With those fears in mind, I am not convinced we can allow Northern to muddle on regardless of their failings.

The Transport Secretary has refused calls, including my own, for the franchise to be removed from Northern and taken into temporary public ownership. But how can the company that caused all this chaos in the first place – in Chris Grayling’s view – be the one to put it right?

What would Northern have to do to get the franchise taken off them? Cancel all the trains between Manchester and Liverpool for two months?

These failures show the Tories are happy to continue ignoring the North and their transport needs. Indeed, investment in rail in the North has also been cut back significantly this year, with the cancellations of electrification projects, including the Midland mainline to Nottingham and Sheffield. Moreover, the Tories have still not indicated whether the long-promised upgrade of the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Yorkshire will include full electrification.

What this situation clearly shows is that the vast Northern franchise is not fit for purpose. It should be broken up and given to smaller operators who are better able to handle the problems of running a railway. With the new combined authorities in Liverpool, Manchester and West Yorkshire there is clearly scope for more decisions to be made in the areas impacted by them.

So, for the politics of this. On the one hand we have a franchise that isn’t working and on the other a Transport Minister crippled by inaction. It is no wonder that some 25 newspapers across the North, including The Yorkshire Post, have called for an emergency summit in Downing Street. I applaud them for this.

I am clear however, that we need more than just talking from this Tory Government. I think questions must now be asked about how long the Transport Secretary can continue to oversee this mess. Chris Grayling seems happy to blame everyone for the failings on the line, from Network Rail to works overrunning, but he must recognise that the responsibility lies at his door. He is the minister responsible for getting us into this mess, but is he the right person to get us out of it?

If the Tories allow this saga to rumble on, without being seen to do anything, it will cost them votes at the next election. Given the Brexit calamity (another crisis of the Tories’ own creation), the party cannot afford to drop further in the polls.

So watch this space. Don’t be surprised if Grayling finds his ministerial car has been cancelled.

Tim Farron MP, Former Liberal Democrat Leader and Spokesperson for the North