Judith Blake: Inquiry will get to timetable truth over Northern Rail

IT is sadly the case that years of under-investment and under-performance have lowered the expectations of rail passengers in Yorkshire. When for many years your commute to work has been via a noisy, slow, cramped Pacer train, there is little room to be further disappointed in the service on offer.
Cartoonist Graeme bandeira's depiction of Chris Grayling and Northern Rail.Cartoonist Graeme bandeira's depiction of Chris Grayling and Northern Rail.
Cartoonist Graeme bandeira's depiction of Chris Grayling and Northern Rail.

Yet, in the last three weeks, rail passengers in our region have experienced a new low as the chaotic introduction of timetable changes has triggered a wholly unacceptable deterioration of services.

Getting to work, getting home before your children go to bed, getting to college, getting anywhere has often become a major expedition rather than a matter of routine. Working together, West Yorkshire council leaders have been pressing the case for urgent action to address these shortcomings and compensate passengers.

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A combination of the failure of the operator to plan properly for the timetable change, and delays to infrastructure work by Network Rail which have had their own knock-on impacts, have left rail passengers facing a litany of delays and cancellations.

This was not what was promised when the Northern rail franchise was let in 2016 but a mixture of factors have conspired to delay improvements due to be made in December 2017 and which remain undelivered, a situation compounded by the latest timetable failings.

In terms of the current disruption, the inconvenience experienced by businesses and their staff has understandably been the focus of attention. They have certainly borne the brunt of the damage and I am seriously concerned at the damage that is being done to the Leeds City Region economy.

However, there are broader impacts emerging. For example, at a time when our high streets are under pressure from a mixture of economic factors, retailers are understandably concerned about the impact the disruption to rail services is having on consumer confidence.

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In Leeds, we have seen higher demand at our park-and-ride facilities in recent days. Of course, I am pleased that people are looking for alternative public transport routes into the city but how many others are staying at home? And what about the consequences for the region’s tourism sector? Are the visitors who flock to Yorkshire every year going to have second thoughts as they contemplate whether to head to our region this summer?

Rail has a vital role to play in the future of West Yorkshire’s transport. West Yorkshire leaders continue to press the case for major investments in the shape of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail to move people across North and the country faster alongside the long-awaited upgrade of the trans-Pennine Route. The recent disruption has all too eloquently made the case for addressing the chronic shortage of capacity in the North rail network. But those substantial long-term investments are not a substitute for action on the rail network which is a critical part as part of local transport, taking people out of their cars, reducing congestion and boosting air quality.

It is for that reason that plans are being developed for four new rail stations in the region in addition to the three already built since 2015. It is also why the West Yorkshire Combined Authority has invested in a programme providing hundreds of extra spaces at rail station car parks.

If we are to maximise the impact of this kind of investment and create the truly integrated transport network we all want to see, and which West Yorkshire councils and the Combined Authority are working hard to develop, we need reliable regional rail services using modern trains which inspire confidence in the travelling public.

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I have been asked by the Minister for Rail (Jo Johnson), and Transport for the North, to lead a review that will look closely at the circumstances which led to the catastrophic introduction of the new timetable, to understand how and where decisions were made with such damaging consequences so we can make sure this is not repeated.

I am expecting this review to make far reaching recommendations on how we in the North can hold operators to account to local people, and ensure that operators and the wider rail industry do not plan changes that they cannot be confident to deliver.

I, and other leaders from across the North, will be seeking answers when we meet at Transport for the North on Tuesday and will continue to press the Government to treat the resolution of this crisis as a national priority. We need a comprehensive and easy-to-access compensation scheme which treats passengers across the North fairly and encourages people to return to the railways.

Rail passengers in West Yorkshire deserve a modern, reliable, affordable service and we must use this crisis as a catalyst to end the years of under-investment, low expectations and deliver what our economy – and our communities – need.

Coun Judith Blake is the West Yorkshire Combined Authority representative on Transport for the North and Leader of Leeds City Council.