AT least the Chuckle Brothers provided some humour when this Yorkshire double act performed their ‘To me, to you!’ comedy routine. It’s no laughing matter, however, when rail chiefs try it. In fact, it is insulting.
Here’s why. TransPennine Express managing director Leo Goodwin broke his silence this week, after some prompting by this columnist last weekend, and effectively blamed fellow operator Northern – as well as Network Rail – for the chaos on his services.
Northern went further when one of its rush-hour trains broke down on the Wharfedale Line between Leeds and Ilkley and led to two hours of delays. It tweeted that this was “out of our control” when the operator is in charge of its own maintenance. And then there’s Chris Grayling. “I don’t run the railways,” he insists. Well, who does? He’s only the Transport Secretary.
In the week when Rotherham is mourning Barry Elliott, one of the Chuckle Brothers, who has died at the age of 73, this latest ‘To me, to you!’ buckpassing is a recurring theme – awful communication and an abject failure to take any responsibility.
Yet both are fundamental to the future of the railways if the day ever comes when Mr Grayling is replaced by someone who knows what they’re doing and Transport for the North is given real powers.
From correspondence readers of The Yorkshire Post have sent me, their collective lack of confidence in the trains is matched by the reluctance of senior managers to engage with the public.
If they’re not being insulted by Northern’s tweets, it is TransPennine Express passengers missing business meetings, or airport connections, because journeys to Hull, Scarborough and Middlesbrough, or Manchester Airport, were cut short because they were running so late.
And then there’s Mr Goodwin’s failure to address the specific concerns of people living in the Pennine communities of Marsden and Slaithwaite as his firm’s complacency and contempt takes its toll on tourism in the beautiful Colne Valley.
They’re supposed to have an hourly service to both Leeds and Manchester. Yet, invariably, trains are cancelled with no notice or, as on Tuesday, only complete part of the rush hour journey before being halted and leaving stranded passengers awaiting a train with some standing room.
This isn’t a branch line. It’s the main cross-Pennine railway, supposedly one of the most important in the country. Yet, since May 30, passengers here have endured 453 cancelled trains – or services which have not reached their intended destination – according to campaigners. Of these, TransPennine Express, part of First Group, were responsible for 436.
Yet, while Mr Goodwin said in his article for this newspaper on Tuesday that correspondence from commuters “has been responded to”, the complainants are not satisfied. Far from it.
Campaigners like Gary Godolphin, of Slaithwaite and Marsden Action on Rail Transport, have been writing to Mr Goodwin for weeks and have been fobbed off by his regional development manager Lucja Majewski. Just like the trains, they’re getting nowhere.
Call me old-fashioned, but invisible and faceless bosses like Mr Goodwin – and Northern’s managing director David Brown – should be fronting up when this summer’s scandal has already cost the North £35m and one million lost hours.
For this reason, I’d apply some very strict customer service criteria to all new rail franchises if – heaven forbid – I was running the Department for Transport.
As the railways are a subsidised public service, there should be a legal requirement for the MD of train operators to sign off complaints, and correspondence, from customers within 14 days, and in person, rather than leaving it to minions to mimic the ‘To me, to you’ routine of the Chuckle Brothers.
They should also be ordered to stage public meetings once a month, ideally at the main stations on their network, so they can engage with commuters.
And, in return for running the franchise, there should be incentives to speed up the payment of compensation when trains are delayed for an unreasonable period – there are currently passengers in Yorkshire with 12 or more outstanding claims who say there’s no transparency, or method, to existing protocols. Any rail chief with a public service ethos will agree. If not, they shouldn’t be part of the industry.
Then there’s the role of the Transport Secretary. Not only do the railway industry’s watchdogs need to raise their game, but the hapless Mr Grayling – or, preferably, his successor – should be required to make, in person, quarterly statements to Parliament on the performance of the train operators, take questions from MPs and provide a detailed spending breakdown so the neglected North can see if it’s receiving a fair share of Government funding or not.
Front up – or step aside for someone who will put passengers first. That’s how I would try to end this ‘To me, to you’ farce so the likes of Leo Goodwin, David Brown and Chris Grayling, realise that power still comes with responsibility and is nothing to chuckle about.