David Behrens: How could this runaway train be allowed to go on for so long?

IT has taken a shambles of this magnitude to awaken Theresa May to the reality of the third-world train service with which we in Yorkshire have to live.
Theresa May's comments have piled pressure on Chris Grayling.Theresa May's comments have piled pressure on Chris Grayling.
Theresa May's comments have piled pressure on Chris Grayling.

Downing Street said it had “tremendous sympathy” with passengers, whose service had been “totally unacceptable”. But if you are one of those passengers, you won’t need to be told that the service has been unacceptable for years, not just since the timetable change the other week that blew Northern Rail out of the water.

But how could the runaway train have been allowed to go so far down the hill before it crashed into Number 10? Let’s break down the levels of responsibility for this self-inflicted fiasco.

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The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, more or less admitted in the Commons that he had been duped by the rail companies about the severity of the effect the new schedules would have. He has been, at the very least, ineffectual in his dealings with them. They need the firmer hand of someone else running his department.

But any minister is beholden to the thousands of civil servants whose job it is to efficiently implement the policy of the day, but who are too tied up in their own red tape to see the wood for the trees. I worked for an agency of the Transport Department for three years and I have never seen a workplace so marked out by its mediocrity and complacency.

There is good reason for that: If I as a civil servant made a botch of a contract, awarding a contractor disproportionate benefits in order to satisfy arbitrary rules on “best practice”, it would be my boss’s neck on the block, not mine. The minister’s, in other words. With so little incentive to succeed, no wonder they’re complacent.

Mr Grayling appeared keen to blame Network Rail for failing to deliver engineering upgrades on time – and they are indeed culpable. But they have never met a schedule yet, so the unlikelihood of them doing so this time should have been factored into the planning. For goodness sake, the firm has failure written through it like a stick of Blackpool rock.

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Mr Grayling has also sought to divert attention to Transport for the North, a public sector body which shares the management of the Northern franchise. So, what has TfN been doing exactly, and what indeed is it supposed to do in the first place?

Its PR people told me they had a “joint partner response team” in “close dialogue” with Northern. What did that mean, I asked? What had they physically done to resolve matters? Had they placed Northern under a threat of financial penalty?

TfN’s “rail stakeholder manager”, Simon Shrouder, a man who describes himself as “an ideas man with a passion for communicating”, excelled himself. “We have nothing further to add to our statement,” he told me.

At a time when the rail industry and its governors ought to be bending over backwards to grasp the nettle, TfN’s unwillingness to explain itself reinforces my view that it is an unnecessary and expensive layer of bureaucracy whose removal would not impact on the service in any way.

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But none of this excuses the performance of Northern Rail itself. It was they who failed to manage their relationship with Network Rail and their other suppliers; they who in implementing the new timetables rolled out a product that wasn’t ready for market. They are a commercial company yet they failed spectacularly to implement two standard businesses processes. Their only response so far has been to cancel yet more services – a move which will work to their financial advantage.

As if there were not enough injury upon which to heap insult, their guards, intent on preserving working practices as outdated as a British Rail cheese sandwich, have just announced three more strikes. How much longer must we tolerate this shower? How much longer will their own shareholders put up with them?

Northern’s history of under-performing and of paying lip service to complaints makes it an easy target, in the sense that a target which moves faster would be harder to hit. But that, nevertheless, is where the buck stops.

Northern has only ever really cared about one customer: the minister who rubber-stamped its franchise. It was only a matter of time before its toxic combination of arrogance and incompetence lost them his patronage, too.