Political opportunism to no discernible purpose is only going to increase in the near future, now that alleged Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has his overall Commons majority. And yesterday brought a particularly shameless example of the genre, as Transport Secretary Grant “Spiv” Shapps told anyone prepared to listen that he was going to strip Northern Rail of its franchise. Well, perhaps.
Transport Secretary? Er, if you say so
As the BBC has reported, “The government has described Northern rail services as ‘unacceptable’ as delays continue to plague its trains … Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he was ‘not prepared’ to tolerate the commuter line operator's poor performance … He told the BBC: ‘There's a couple of ways that can go, but one is to strip the franchise’”.
Which would achieve precisely nothing. But do go on. “In a BBC interview on Thursday, Mr Shapps was asked whether his intention was to remove Northern's franchise. He replied: ‘That's right. In the autumn I wrote to the necessary parties in this with what's called a request for proposal, and that's simply where you say: “Look, I'm going to take action.”’”
A new Northern Class 195 set on test at Crewe
So it’s all about being seen to take Really Tough Decisions. And there was more from Michael Green, or perhaps it was Sebastian Fox. ”There’s a couple of ways that can go, but one is to strip the franchise, one is to have a short-term contract, but yes, exactly as you said, I'm simply not prepared for the service on Northern to carry on as it is and I am taking action.” He was going to take action twice!
But enough. As the BBC report also makes clear, Northern Rail’s problems are in part due to the failure of Network Rail (prop. HM Government) failing to deliver electrification projects on time, thus meaning Northern didn’t have enough crew trained on the trains that they then had to use. Northern were not the only franchise having to cancel services in the wake of the 2018 timetable overhaul: at least two other operators did the same.
Transport for Wales should have been operating a new service from Chester to Liverpool via the Halton Curve. They didn’t have enough trains to cover the service, therefore it did not run. Transpennine Express, meanwhile, are cancelling services so regularly that their offering is in danger of becoming seriously unreliable. They blame slow delivery of new trains, but Northern, affected likewise, is the one getting threatened with the boot.
Small wonder that Nigel Harris of Rail magazine was sceptical: “I look forward to seeing the magic wand which will end the situation he rightly says is unacceptable, but which is actually at least as much as Government’s fault as it is Northern’s. Buck will then stop with you Grant. Bring it on”. He was not alone in lacking faith in Shapps’ commitment.
Rail journalist Paul Bigland was on the same page as Harris. “Quite. Making Northern services run to time and not be cancelled by stripping Northern of the franchise will work how, exactly?” And former MP and one-time Tory London Mayoral hopeful Steve Norris concluded “This is absolutely right. Blaming Northern is missing the point. And the idea the government/DfT will run it better is absurd”. They know their subject. Shapps may not.
A minister dealing in political expediency, rather than making decisions based on first becoming knowledgeable, is the last thing the railway needs. Sadly, that is exactly what it appears to have with Grant Shapps. More cancellations? Don’t bet against it.
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