'I spent my silver wedding anniversary dealing with the 2018 northern rail timetable chaos', says Transport for the North chief executive Barry White

Barry White still recalls his shock at experiencing for the first time the reality of life for many hard-pressed northern commuters as he took the train across the Pennines.

Before joining Transport for the North (TfN) in 2017 a large part of his career involved working on major infrastructure projects, most recently north of the border with the Scottish Futures Trust.

And he saw a job leading the new strategic transport organisation, dedicated to transforming the networks used by millions across the North, as a way to help make a difference in people's lives.

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Transport for the North chief executive Barry White

"I saw Transport for the North as an opportunity," Mr White says. "The North had been badly served by underinvestment for four decades. And actually I still remember being quite shocked the first time I got the train from Manchester to Bradford and realised quite how slow that journey was.

"So seeing the difference that could be made and the opportunity to make it, that was really the reason I took this role on because I think the North has been badly served for a long time."

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he is able to reflect on his time at TfN as he prepares for his final months in the job. He announced plans for a career break last year and plans to walk the 800km Camino de Santiago route, following the path of a major Christian pilgrimage route in northern spain.

Northern transport has been high on the national agenda for much of his three years as TfN's chief executive, not least when Boris Johnson made the 'levelling up' agenda central to his 2019 General Election bid.

Though the future of the controversial HS2 project - and the likelihood of it reaching Yorkshire in full - remains uncertain, he is aiming for TfN to submit to Ministers its bid for vital Northern Powerhouse Rail project providing high speed rail across the North by the time he leaves in May.

But away from the big ticket infrastructure projects, it was the day-to-day reality of train transport that brought the wrong kind of attention to the North in the summer of 2018 and shone a spotlight on the longstanding failings of the industry.

The introduction of new timetables by operator Northern in 2018 led to widespread disruption and cancellations in what was later described by a review as a "debacle". Transport for the North was drawn into the saga because of its role co-managing the North's two main rail franchises.

"Stepping into that, and just seeing how fragmented the industry was and how there was such a lack of focus on passengers and customers was actually really eye-opening to me", admits Mr White.

"When you asked who was responsible for solving this, industry was looking at each other, and the whole contractual nature of how the rail industry worked means everybody points the finger at everybody else, which is really unhelpful.

"It was dreadful actually. I remember spending my silver wedding anniversary, which was just a month after that, having multiple phone calls just trying to get things moving forward again, trying to get some short term measures put in place that would alleviate some of the most immediate problems.

"But it left some communities really badly served for a long time. And one example being the service to Windermere for that summer, which was really appalling. And that community suffered a lot as a result of an industry failure. And that is something that for me was actually awful for those communities."

The saga, which cost the economy of the North millions, prompted widespread changes to the industry and ultimately led to Northern being taken under government control. The consensus is now that the management of trains and the track on which they run needs to be brought closer together.

But the Williams review into the future of the rail industry has still yet to be published and Mr White says that while rail leaders have learned a lot "I don't think all those lessons are yet fully embedded".

He said: "There's a number of good things have happened. The nature of franchising has already changed because of COVID, so it's actually now the government coordinating services much more and taking the revenue risk.

"So it's less about competition between franchises and it's more about integrating services for the benefit of passengers. The Williams reviews has never been published but we believe that was one of the central recommendations, just changing that contract structure so that it meant you focus less on your contractual obligations, and much more on running trains on time, running clean trains, improving the quality of the trains you run so that passengers want to use them more.

"So there's a whole lot of things that I think are just really good common sense measures that the change in the franchising system to more of a management contract with very clear deliverables, I think will help enormously."

Things haven't always been straightforward for Transport for the North as it wrestles with the need to provide a unified force for northern leaders while at the same time working with government to bring about tangible improvements on complicated projects.

The creation of a new Northern Transport Acceleration Council led by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who last year described TfN as "by definition a talking shop", adds further uncertainty to its future purpose.

TfN lacks the tax-raising powers of Transport for London and is ultimately beholden to the Department for Transport for funding. Mr White says the powers the body has, or lack of them, are not a source of frustration but that he hopes it will one day be more able to make decisions, rather than just give advice.

He describes his frustration at the speed of progress on major schemes, with central government putting obstacles in the path of progress on issues like high speed rail with a succession of reviews.

But reflecting on the achievements of TfN, he praised the organisation's passionate staff and the strategic transport plan it published in February 2019, setting out for the first time "a cohesive strategic transport plan for the North".

Plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail continue apace and TfN has led a host of improvements to smart ticketing, making it easier for passengers to get around without paper tickets and find out journey information.

The notorious Pacer trains have finally gone out of service and replaced by a new fleet of more modern vehicles thanks to a huge investment in rolling stock.

"Having traveled in those trains myself, the difference between when I started three years ago and now, when you stand in Leeds station or you stand in Manchester station and you look at the concourse across all the platforms, it looks like a different railway station because the rolling stock is so much more modern, so much more comfortable, WiFi is better.

"So that whole development of the railway service in the North of England, there has been a great sense of achievement around that."

'A vibrant future ahead'

Use of public transport has declined dramatically as a result of the pandemic, which Mr White says has accelerated an existing trend for people working at home.

And TfN is working on the basis that people may only go into an office two days a week rather than four or five as they currently do when things return to a new normal, meaning people will travel less than they used to.

He says: "And that has a number of impacts. So it will in the short term mean a dip in fare revenue, so we will have less money coming into the railway system in the short term. But what we need to do is say because people are working from home a bit more, how can we use that released capacity, the seats that are now available to people?

"How can we use that to attract car users to switch to public transport, to switch into rail, light rail or bus. We've gone from perhaps being too crowded to having some capacity spare. Let's really try to get people to swap to public transport.

"And actually the greenest journey of all is no journey, so actually people working from home is a great thing in many ways. If we can marry that up with getting that swapping to public transport, I think we have a very vibrant future ahead for public transport."