- 05 June 2018
- Posted in: Planning & Development, Management & Leadership
Whether you woke up in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool or the Humber on Tuesday morning; the chances are you read the same headline splashed across your newspaper – ‘Off the Rails’.
The headline, featured on the front page of 25 northern newspapers including the Manchester Evening News, Lancashire Post, Sheffield Star, Blackpool Gazette, Chorley Guardian and Liverpool Echo is a reference to the ongoing Northern Rail franchise debacle that has resulted in excess of 160 daily service cancellations, widespread delays across the network, hundreds of thousands of outraged passengers and perhaps yet, even the job of the Minister of State for Transport, Chris Grayling.
Northern Rail, owned by Arriva, has long-been criticised for delivering sub-standard services; habitually late trains, out-of-date stock, inadequate volume of staff - one wonders how it has taken this long for the collective to voice concerns that the franchise is not delivering the service it is contractually obliged to.
That is what’s happening now – and the collective voice contains those of local MPs on both sides of the political divide, city mayors, regional newspapers and passengers across the North-West, North-East, Yorkshire and the Humber.
The already poor standard of service provided by Northern further crumbled under pressure to deliver the biggest overhaul to the British rail timetable in modern history. On Sunday, May 20th, a revision to the timetable of every regional rail network in Britain came into force; meaning services would now arrive/depart at newly assigned times, some services were cancelled completely, bizarre and inexplicable changes resulted in some passengers now requiring two trains journeys and a changeover just to reach stations three minutes away (i.e. Mossley – Greenfield in the Saddleworth area of Oldham). Commenting on the Northern Rail chaos, Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester proposed a number of initiatives to tackle the franchise’s dismal performance – including compensation and stripping Northern of the ability to bid for rail franchising contracts in the future:
“Northern have already left people seriously out of pocket and turned their lives upside down with their chaotic services. I’ve heard countless stories of people forking out for taxis, hire cars, hotels and extra child care but unable to get compensation for it. Now that Northern are unilaterally cancelling thousands of services – that many holders have already paid for – passengers must be properly and fully compensated. There must also be a reduction in fares for all passengers on routes affected by these changes. Northern are set to benefit financially from this emergency timetable. It is the company, and not the passengers, who should pay the price from this mismanagement.”
Mr Burnham was adamant that Northern are out of excuses and operating a service so poor that it may be adversely impacting the economy of northern England:
“They are causing too much damage to the economy of the North to be allowed to inflict their miserable, unreliable services on us any longer. If they are not providing the promised new May timetable by early August, then steps should be taken to strip the franchise from them.”
The anger with Northern Rail has spread down south - all the way to Westminster. On Monday, MPs from the government and opposition benches grilled Chris Grayling in the House of Commons and in private meetings – voicing the outrage of constituents who have been forced to adapt their commutes and work engagements to the whims of the undependable rail service providers. Typically supportive Conservative MPs rallied against the Transport Secretary in parliament and on the air-waves – former cabinet colleague and MP for Sevenoaks, Michael Fallon, was particularly piercing with his criticism of the state of British rail networks; turning attention momentarily away from Northern Rail to the embattled Thameslink franchise that services southern constituencies.
“This is now week three and becoming a scandal. My constituents can’t get to work in London, their children can’t get trains to school, and we are now into more cancellations even with the emergency timetables. It really is time now that ministers get a grip of this and force Thameslink to get on and run a decent service – if necessary borrowing drivers from other companies who know the routes. All of this was supposed to be an improvement, that was the point of the new timetable, and it has proven to be a disaster.”
On the opposition benches, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald called for Grayling to resign his post – which would make him the fifth member of Theresa May’s cabinet to resign since last years general election: “The travelling public and the rail industry have no faith in the Transport Secretary to fix the situation. Were the prime minister not so enfeebled, she would sack him. If he had any concept of responsibility he would resign. The Transport Secretary should do the right thing and step aside.”
Off the back of Grayling’s parliamentary drubbing, the Commons Transport Committee announced on Tuesday morning that it will launch an inquiry into the rail timetable disaster. Chair of the committee, Nottingham South MP Lillian Greenwood, stated:
“Passengers continue to suffer from terrible disruptions to their train services, particularly on Northern and GTR services. We will begin by questioning Northern, GTR and Network Rail but plan to take further evidence, including from the Department for Transport, so that we properly understand why the introduction of the new timetable has gone so badly wrong, what is being done to put it right and the steps needed to prevent this happening again.
The Secretary of State has said there have been ‘major failures’ – we want to unpick this mess and understand how it can be prevented from occurring in December, when another timetable change is due.”