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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.