Transport Secretary Grant “Spiv” Shapps was in bullish mood earlier this month as he told “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’ … 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!
That was how bad the situation on Northern Rail had got, but to a large extent, that situation was not of Northern Rail’s making: much of the recent chaos was down to Network Rail - which is, whisper it quietly, Government owned - delivering infrastructure upgrades late, like electrification. So Northern has its drivers and trains ready to deliver a service which the available infrastructure wouldn’t let it run.
Were track and train not split the way they are, it might have been different, but operators can only work with the industry structure they are handed. So although Labour voices have been in “I told you so” mode today, there have also been warnings - that things are not going to change in the short or even medium term.
A new Northern Rail Class 195 train on test at Crewe
So while Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told “For months, [Steve Rotheram], [Dan Jarvis], [Jamie Driscoll] & I have called for Northern to be put under public control. If that’s what the Government is proposing, it’s the right decision & evidence that Mayors are getting the voice of the North heard in Whitehall”, one of his pals sounded a warning.
Steve Rotheram added “Today, it looks like government might finally be taking action to strip them of the franchise. This is only a first step, proper investment in our rail infrastructure has to follow”. Also, perhaps operators should not have to make commitments on the back of Network Rail promises until they have been delivered.
Which brings us back to the Government - and Shapps. And Mick Whelan, General Secretary of the ASLEF, had a warning for him: “There won't be an immediate improvement because many of the systemic failures at Northern - the late delivery of new rolling stock, the cancellation by the Conservative government of infrastructure upgrades, trying to run a service with too few drivers - cannot be remedied overnight”.
Also, as the BBC’s Tom Burridge has put it, “Northern's failure is in large part down to ancient infrastructure which struggles to cope with the high volume of trains and passengers at peak times. Put simply, there is no silver bullet for improving our railways”.
There are, of course, improvements supposedly in the pipeline, like two more through platforms at the south side of Manchester’s Piccadilly Station. But guess what? Rather than ponying up the funds for that, which operators have been calling for for years, Shapps and his fellow Tories are trying to curry favour with the wider electorate by pretending they will reverse the network cuts made in the wake of the 1963 Beeching Report. They won’t.
Some politicians can’t resist the urge to chase votes, rather than address the issue that is staring them in the face. Grant Shapps and Northern Rail is a superb example of this.
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