The Northern rail chaos shows why the North should control its own railways

A train approaches Manchester Airport, 2015. Image: Getty.

In 2014, I took the short walk from my office to Leeds train station to take part in the Department for Transport’s consultation on the future of rail in northern England. I had two questions.

“Which train do you most regularly take in the North?” was the first one. The civil servants, freshly arrived from London, squirmed. They took none regularly.

“Why are you running this consultation then, and not someone who does?” I continued. Feet shuffled and something was said about expertise, experience with the process, and working with local partners. Stakeholders were almost certainly engaged. Are they ever not?

Fast forward four years, and trains in the North are in chaos. My written suggestion that people in the North manage train franchises for the North was ignored. So instead of taking some responsibility, we must now blame people in London and Milton Keynes for the delays, cancellations, and congestion.

Since everyone moans about public transport even when it’s good, some numbers on the scale of chaos in the North are useful. On Monday 21 May, on the first full day of its new timetable, 82 per cent of trains on the GoVia Thameslink network ran on time. Radio 4 led with a story of “chaos” about the remaining 18 per cent, and most of the national media joined in.

On the very same day in northern England, to much less national media outrage, just 64 per cent of Northern trains managed to run on time. Less than half of the Transpennine Express services linking the North’s major cities achieved the same. Even these numbers underestimate the disruption in northern England. The inconvenience and delay caused by cancelling the hourly train from Blackpool to Manchester Piccadilly or Manchester Piccadilly to Hull is considerably greater than the inconvenience of cancelling a few of the eight brand-new trains connecting central London and St. Albans every hour.

It is traditional at this point to include some personal stories. There are many. The Rugby League fan who gave up trying to make the 20 mile journey to Warrington. The North Leeds commuter who bought a bike because their half-hourly train was almost always too full to get on. Pretty much anyone who’s ever tried to get a train to or from Bolton (seriously). And of course anyone who ever takes the line in Cumbria that Northern is planning to give up running for two months this summer.

But to focus on the personal stories of disruption is to miss the point. Unlike in the South East, it is not the journeys disrupted that really matter, but the journeys never taken or even considered.

Most people in the North, even in its large cities, will not have noticed the rail disruption. They have never even considered taking the train. Public transport has long been so dreadful by UK and European standards that if they can afford to, they drive.

This leaves our towns and cities disconnected, and the North unproductive and disunited. It is the product not of a single timetable change, but of decades of underinvestment and neglect. The fix will be the same investment that today means that Scotland and South East England enjoy a world-class railway. The North needs decades of investment, not just a quick resolution of the current chaos as more staff are hired and new timetables bed in.

For the first time in a while, there is some hope of this happening.

Coverage of the current chaos has been unusually good. Thanks to social media, regional papers like the Manchester Evening News and the Yorkshire Post have a louder voice. Thanks to the relocation of parts of the BBC, the Salford-based Radio 5 Live is able to give a more balanced national picture than London’s Radio 4. Thanks to newly-elected metro mayors, in particular Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, the Department for Transport cannot ignore the problem. Thanks to the recently created Transport for the North, there is an established local body that could intervene.

And thanks to Brexit, even though I regret our vote in many other ways, more of the country realises that it cannot continue to neglect northern England without consequence.

On the ground too, things are going in the right direction. Manchester’s two main stations are finally connected. New trains for the TransPennine Express later this year should mean that travellers between Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds, and York can get a seat. The leaky buses-on-wheels Pacer trains that serve many commuters are due to be replaced.

We must go much further and much faster. The largest Northern rail investment, Manchester’s Northern Hub upgrade, cost less than a tenth of what was spent on London’s Thameslink upgrade. It will deliver over three times the value for money as the Thameslink upgrade, and double the value for money of building Crossrail. Elsewhere, electrification to Blackpool means that 30-year-old trains from Thameslink can run in the North – upgrading the North’s commuters from third class to second class.

But these improvements took far too long to be approved, and dozens of similarly good-value schemes across the North remain unfunded. Where investment has occurred it is dwarfed by the sums invested both in London and in the similar parts of Europe that the North aspires to match. It is unacceptable that the UK government continues to plan further low-value improvements in and around London while ignoring and cancelling better schemes in the North. We must either do both, or make better choices.

A good place to start would be to un-cancel electrification schemes. The UK government promised electric trains between Leeds and Manchester and it must deliver them. A new promise that a digital railway will deliver similar improvements is barely more believable than promises that a digital border will resolve the UK and Ireland’s border issues. Equally as important we must do what I and many others said four year ago — the North must run the North’s railways.

Today, as almost every day, London’s Overground, TfL Rail, and ScotRail services, with the benefit of decades and investment and franchises and responsibilities held locally, will run an almost perfect service. There are few investments in prosperity that the UK could make that are as likely to succeed as emulating that success in northern England. For a change, we should try.

Tom Forth is Head of Data at The Open Data Institute Leeds. His blog is here. This post previously appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.