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Northern leaders issue united Whitehall plea for real power over region’s rail

Some 71 business leaders and council chiefs have signed the open letter calling for the Government to invest real power in the hands of Transport for the North.
Some 71 business leaders and council chiefs have signed the open letter calling for the Government to invest real power in the hands of Transport for the North.
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A high-profile group of senior business and civic leaders are urging the Government to react to the rail timetables fiasco by committing to the devolution of decision-making powers over transport in the North of England.

In an open letter, 71 industry and council bosses from across the North call on Theresa May’s government to hand Transport for the North full powers to manage all northern infrastructure.

North Yorkshire County Council’s Conservative council leader, Councillor Carl Les said it is “a matter of principal” to put his name to the plea, while Leeds Council’s Labour leader, Coun Judith Blake warned “enough was enough” after two weeks of unacceptable levels of cancelled and delayed trains in the North.

The letter is also signed by business and council chiefs in Craven, Hambleton, Rotherham and Sheffield, and in Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside and the North East.

It warns that “anger is mounting” over rail disruption that has seen people miss vital appointments and be issued with written warnings at work. Businesses have struggled to cope and public services have been put under strain, the letter states, as leaders blamed Northern Rail’s failure to be ready for the new timetables, Network Rail’s delays in completing engineering works and Whitehall inaction.

The letter continues: “Only by TfN being accountable for the performance of Network Rail and the train companies can the north truly take control of its own destiny. Without greater authority TfN will not be able to supervise delivery of the north’s first strategic transport plan and avoid repeats of the current fiasco.”

And, the letter goes on to add: “Even when things return to normal, the railways across the Northern Powerhouse region are not good enough to attract investment and increase productivity at the pace required to ensure we become an equal partner in the UK economy.”

It also asks the Government to commit to implementing TfN’s Northern Powerhouse Rail strategic outline business case in full “by the time of this autumn’s budget”.

Coun Les told The Yorkshire Post: “The debacle of the last few weeks reinforces the view that if we are making the decisions in the North, they might be better than decisions made by civil servants in London. I don’t think I’m being critical of the Government. It’s a point of principal.”

Coun Blake, who is leading a review into the timetables chaos, said: “There is a huge opportunity for more power to be given to the North for hands-on oversight so that we will never, ever be in a situation like this again.

“I met with the Rail Minister (Jo Johnson) and officials last week. They were clear that the status quo is not an option.”

Roger Marsh, chairman of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, added: “We know what we need to do and we’re up for it, but the Government must give us the tools.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “We have been clear that Northern passengers are encountering totally unacceptable service levels and this must be put right as soon as possible with passengers compensated for the disruption.

“The Transport Secretary immediately ordered an independent inquiry to determine how this went so badly wrong and to make sure it does not happen again. He was also clear that he will not hesitate to take tough action if Northern has breached its contracts and is found negligent.

“Ministers continue to work closely with Northern leaders and are receiving daily updates on the situation to ensure it is resolved as quickly as possible. On Thursday the Rail Minister visited the north to meet passenger groups, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and leaders of Northern and Network Rail to discuss the issue.”

Northern said it was working “extremely hard” to stabilise and provide certainty in delivering a reliable train service on parts of its network that were affected by recent significant disruption and cancellations.

A spokesperson said: “We are very sorry for the inconvenience and disruption to our customers and we are working night and day with our partners to fix the issues and improve our service. Performance has improved over the past few days since the introduction of the interim timetable and we are working very hard for this to continue.”