After the Northern rail chaos, the North should control its own railways

On Monday 21 May, while Radio 4 obsessed over Thameslink, just 64 per cent of Northern trains managed to run on time. 

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In 2014, I took the short walk from my office to Leeds train station to take part in the Department for Transport’s consultation on the future of rail in North England. I had two questions.

“Which train do you most regularly take in the North?” was the first one. The civil servants, freshly arrived from London, squirmed. They took none regularly.

“Why are you running this consultation then, and not someone who does?” I continued. Feet shuffled and something was said about expertise, experience with the process, and working with local partners. Stakeholders were almost certainly engaged. Are they ever not?

Fast forward four years, and trains in the North are in chaos. My written suggestion that people in the North manage train franchises for the North was ignored. So instead of taking some responsibility, we must now blame people in London and Milton Keynes for the delays, cancellations, and congestion.

Since everyone moans about public transport even when it’s good, some numbers on the scale of chaos in the North are useful. On Monday 21 May, on the first full day of its new timetable, 82 per cent of Thameslink trains ran on time. Radio 4 led with a story of “chaos” about the remaining 18 per cent, and most of the national media joined in.

On the very same day in north England, to much less national media outrage, just 64 per cent of Northern trains managed to run on time. Less than half of the Transpennine Express services linking the North’s major cities achieved the same. Even these numbers underestimate the disruption in northern England. The inconvenience and delay caused by cancelling the hourly train from Blackpool to Manchester Piccadilly or Manchester Piccadilly to Hull is considerably greater than the inconvenience of cancelling a few of the eight brand-new trains connecting central London and St. Albans every hour.

It is traditional at this point to include some personal stories. There are many. The Rugby League fan who gave up trying to make the 20 mile journey to Warrington. The North Leeds commuter who bought a bike because their half-hourly train was almost always too full to get on. Pretty much anyone who’s ever tried to get a train to or from Bolton (seriously). And of course anyone who ever takes the line in Cumbria that Northern is planning to give up running for two months this summer.

But to focus on the personal stories of disruption is to miss the point. Unlike in the South East, it is not the journeys disrupted that really matter, but the journeys never taken or even considered.

Most people in the North, even in its large cities, will not have noticed the rail disruption. They have never even considered taking the train. Public transport has long been so dreadful by UK and European standards that if they can afford to, they drive.

This leaves our towns and cities disconnected, and the North unproductive and disunited. It is the product not of a single timetable change, but of decades of underinvestment and neglect. The fix will be the same investment that today means that Scotland and South-East England enjoy a world-class railway. The North needs decades of investment, not just a quick resolution of the current chaos as more staff are hired and new timetables bed in.

For the first time in a while, there is some hope of this happening.

Coverage of the current chaos has been unusually good. Thanks to social media, regional papers like the Manchester Evening News and the Yorkshire Post have a louder voice. Thanks to the relocation of parts of the BBC, the Salford-based Radio 5 Live is able to give a more balanced national picture than London’s Radio 4. Thanks to newly-elected metro mayors, in particular Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, the Department for Transport cannot ignore the problem. Thanks to the recently created Transport for the North, there is an established local body that could intervene.

And thanks to Brexit, even though I regret our vote in many other ways, more of the country realises that it cannot continue to neglect northern England without consequence.

On the ground too, things are going in the right direction. Manchester’s two main stations are finally connected. New trains for the TransPennine Express later this year should mean that travellers between Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds, and York can get a seat. The leaky buses-on-wheels Pacer trains that serve many commuters are due to be replaced.

We must go much further and much faster. The largest Northern rail investment, Manchester’s Northern Hub upgrade, cost less than a tenth of what was spent on London’s Thameslink upgrade. It will deliver over three times the value for money as the Thameslink upgrade, and double the value for money of building Crossrail. Elsewhere, electrification to Blackpool means that 30-year-old trains from Thameslink can run in the North – upgrading the North’s commuters from third class to second class.

But these improvements took far too long to be approved, and dozens of similarly good-value schemes across the North remain unfunded. Where investment has occurred it is dwarfed by the sums invested both in London and in the similar parts of Europe that the North aspires to match. It is unacceptable that the UK government continues to plan further low-value improvements in and around London while ignoring and cancelling better schemes in the North. We must either do both, or make better choices.

A good place to start would be to un-cancel electrification schemes. The UK government promised electric trains between Leeds and Manchester and it must deliver them. A new promise that a digital railway will deliver similar improvements is barely more believable than promises that a digital border will resolve the UK and Ireland’s border issues. Equally as important we must do what I and many others said four year ago — the North must run the North’s railways.

Today, as almost every day, London’s Overground, TfL Rail, and ScotRail services, with the benefit of decades and investment and franchises and responsibilities held locally, will run an almost perfect service. There are few investments in prosperity that the UK could make that are as likely to succeed as emulating that success in northern England. For a change, we should try.

Tom Forth is Head of Data at The Open Data Institute Leeds. His blog is here.