In normal times, a note from Downing Street expressing its complete confidence in a minister of state would translate as said minister having another 24 hours before getting on the phone to Pickfords. Just ask Amber Rudd.
But the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, is nothing if not loyal to Theresa May. In her reduced circumstances, that outweighs the ire of all the North’s rail commuters.
It is exactly two months since rail operator Northern announced that despite having introduced an emergency timetable to counter an emergency entirely of the industry’s making, it expected to “get back to a full service by the end of July”.
Well, July has come and gone and normality on the rails is as far away as it is in Whitehall. This week saw a second temporary timetable which will take us through to September, while those trains which remain on the schedule are unreliable to the point of farce.
If this isn’t a resignation issue, or a sacking one, I don’t know what is. Yet not only does the Transport Secretary appear to have dodged the bullet; so – and this is the real scandal – does everyone else in the industry.
The Teflon-coated Mr Grayling has said that he does not run the trains, and defers to the experts who do. This might have been an acceptable gambit but for the fact – and goodness knows, it’s obvious enough – that there are no experts. If there were, there would have been no emergency. No, this is a fiasco that has laid bare the ineptitude on which the industry is built.
Number 10, in expressing its confidence in the Minister this week, said it “understands the anger and frustration of rail passengers in the North”. But does it really? Without a grand gesture of multiple sackings and the installation of a troubleshooter prepared to knock heads together – or even a Prime Ministerial visit to Leeds station in the rush hour – it is hard to believe that Mrs May considers the trains here a priority.
Mr Grayling recognised, in an interview with this newspaper yesterday, that the present system of franchising rail companies cannot go on, and that track and train executives must be made to start talking to each other. He will now have to make good that promise.
In the meantime, let’s consider who from those firms should carry the can for the months of misery inflicted on the travelling public by Network Rail, Northern Rail and TransPennine Express.
Let’s start at the top. Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail, who says he is “personally sorry” for the disruption, should have instituted a clearout of his planners when he took office. It is their failure to adequately manage their infrastructure projects and to properly communicate progress, that is the root cause of the trouble.
Network Rail has over the years been defined by its missed targets and Sir Peter’s failure to learn from past mistakes is a stain on his reputation.
Then we have Northern’s managing director, David Brown, on whose watch the company’s already fragile reputation has been trashed to the point that a phone app called Northern Fail, invented by a frustrated customer, is getting more traction than its own.
Northern is fond of blaming everything and everyone but itself for whatever goes wrong – the weather, the Government, the passengers – but in this case it bears as much responsibility as Network Rail. It has proved itself incapable of running even a reduced timetable and its efforts to keep passengers informed of the hundreds of chaotic last-minute changes are frankly pitiful. The reappearance of unhelpful staff to enforce an unnecessarily aggressive and ambiguous fines policy is a further two-fingered salute to passengers.
Northern’s reputation is beyond rescue, and Mr Brown’s continued presence, and that of his senior managers, should be an embarrassment to his shareholders.
But what will it take to rescue the reputation of the rest of the industry?
Mr Grayling’s next move – one that would begin to rebalance the service in the passengers’ favour – must be to mandate the introduction of automatic compensation every time a train is late, with the money coming from the companies, not the taxpayer.
On such a grand gesture hangs his chance to rescue his reputation from the same fate as that of Northern Rail.