Transport for the North repeats Chris Grayling’s failings over rail chaos – Tom Richmond

JUST what has Transport for the North (TfN) – the body supposedly overseeing the region’s rail services – been doing in the 18 months since timetable turmoil led to unprecedented delays and disruption?

By Tom Richmond
Friday, 27th December 2019, 2:14 pm
Graeme Bandeira's New Year cartoon on the Pacer trains which will remain in service - in 2020.
Graeme Bandeira's New Year cartoon on the Pacer trains which will remain in service - in 2020.

It is a question that has even more relevance, urgency and legitimacy after it woke from its slumber and challenged Northern and TransPennine Express (TPE) to “step up, and be open and honest” over their poor performance.

TfN’s very rare intervention and criticism followed this month’s timetable changes which, at one point, saw more than 70 per cent of TPE’s long-distance services cancelled, or delayed for more than 30 minutes, because of driver shortages and other excuses.

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What has Transport for the North been doing on behalf of rail passengers?

But it was the comments of David Hoggarth, the transport body’s strategic rail director, which deserve to be challenged as this organisation seeks greater financial, and decision-making, powers from the Government.

First, Mr Hoggarth ventured: “Already weary passengers are being tested to their limit and Christmas cheer is running short. The services from both operators have been way below par, with so many delays and cancellations.” Where’s he been? This has been the new norm for 18 months – and counting.

After 18 months of delays and disruption, only now is Transport for the North speaking out on behalf of passengers.

He went on: “As part of our Rail North Committee, the North’s leaders have been scrutinising operators intensively throughout the year ahead of this timetable change.” Really? Why then were these changes signed off – and by whom – when TPE has been blaming cancellations on a driver shortage?

He continued: “We were repeatedly reassured that these matters would be effectively tackled. They weren’t. Passengers are again paying the price.” Hang on – but what does this say about TfN’s competence and capabilities when it has to cite the defence used by Chris Grayling, the then Transport Secretary, last summer when he said he was not responsible for running the trains?

He then ventured: “Operators should be experienced enough to plan for smooth and reliable deployment with sufficient contingency planning in place to cope with any unexpected issues.” I agree – but past performance of Northern and TPE should have told Mr Hoggarth otherwise.

And then this observation and description about the plight of passengers: “Too often they are left standing on the platform with little or no idea of what is happening.” Again, people will wonder just why TfN has not been more proactive.

Former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said he was not responsible for the chaos that followed the 2018 timetable changes.

Of course TfN is not alone in facing criticism for its failure to be more critical of Northern, TPE and other operators which continue to take passengers for a ride ahead of the New Year fare increases.

Network Rail has questions to answer about the state of infrastructure while Grant Shapps, appointed Transport Secretary in late July, is only now free to focus on the day job after the election ended the Brexit uncertainty.

But, before more powers and responsibilities are devolved to TfN, a grand coalition of local councils, it needs to demonstrate that it, too, is fit for purpose and can assert itself on behalf of the travelling public. The fact that Pacer train relics will remain in service next year on some lines is damning in itself.

And, while John Cridland, its chair, is respected, TfN could – and should – have called out the under-performance of Northern and TPE, long before its belated intervention on the last Friday before Christmas. By then, it was too late – just like so many trains here.

I WAS left speechless when Labour backbencher Gareth Thomas commented on social media that Labour has won just four out of the last 14 general elections – Huddersfield-born Harold Wilson’s triumph in 1974 and Tony Blair’s three wins.

He added: “How many more do we have to lose before a Labour leader recognises that it’s not enough to be principled, we have to be perceived to be moderate, patriotic and fiscally responsible as well?”

What Mr Thomas did not say is that he was one of the MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership in 2015. Now the party is coming to terms with its heaviest defeat since 1935.

And if this is a reflection of the intellect – and hypocrisy – left on the Labour backbenches, it does not bode well for a party that does not know whether it should oppose for opposition’s sake, as with Brexit, or forensically scrutinise legislation and then use the power of argument to try to persuade the Government to amend its proposals.

JOHN Bercow, the, thankfully, ex-Speaker, is to publish his memoir, Unspeakable: The Autobiography, in early February. Given he stepped down only at the end of October, he is either a very fast writer or is about to make a huge profit from the serialisation rights because he was working on the book while still occupying the Commons hot seat.

What a contrast with Yorkshire’s very own Betty Boothroyd who began collating material for her memoir only when she retired. And what a contrast with Bercow’s successor, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, whose interventions in the Commons have, so far, been brief and to the point. Long may this last.

ENGLAND’S cricketers should consider themselves fortunate that some have received such swift recognition in the New Year honours for their last ball World Cup win earlier this summer.

Contrast this with Martin Peters who died last weekend. The unassuming hero when England’s footballers won the World Cup at Wembley in 1966, he received a belated MBE only 12 years later. And while he would have been the last person to complain, it makes one wonder if the honours system is still being exploited for political advantage. I hope not.