NOW Chris Grayling has conceded that he “is not a specialist in rail matters”, I’d like to introduce the failing Transport Secretary – and you – to someone who does have some first hand expertise.
She’s 70-year-old Janet Toker who is one of the human casualties of the summer rail crisis that cost the region’s economy £1m a day at its peak and saw cumulative delays on Northern and TransPennine Express services amount to one million lost hours.
So exasperated by the unreliability of the hourly TransPennine Express services to and from Scarborough, she logged all the reasons – some would say excuses – proffered over a recent two-week period. And 28 cancellations and 79 notified delayed trains in a fortnight show that the area’s myriad rail organisations need to stop operating in isolation to meet their franchise obligations and start pulling together as one big team. It’s the buck-passing, not the trains, that needs to be cancelled.
By her own admission, Mrs Toker is fortunate. She primarily uses the train from Scarborough, where she lives, to visit friends and family. She’s not one of the daily commuters who depend on the service to get to and from work.
Yet Scarborough – population 52,000 – is a tourist town that is reliant on the trains and Mrs Toker’s son is still £1,000 out of pocket after a cancelled service led to him missing a business flight to Stockholm – he’s still waiting for compensation. And she, like so many, now leaves an hour earlier if she wants to be confident of catching a connecting train at York, never mind reaching her final destination on time.
“It’s the injustice,” she told me ahead of a forthcoming meeting with her local MP Robert Goodwill, a former transport minister. “It’s like they don’t care because there’s no accountability and no one prepared to take responsibility.
“Going east to west, or west to east, passengers have been suffering for weeks on all services. I actually find it offensive when someone says ‘sorry’ because I don’t actually know if they mean it.”
The irony is that Scarborough’s station was built for passengers when it first opened in July 1845. All the shops closed, and an estimated 15,000 spectators watched the first train arrive in the town.
Built by the Victorians, the long platforms were deliberately designed for the long steam-powered services taking tourists to and from the iconic resort. What a contrast to today’s three-carriage trains, desperately overcrowded when they do run – they, too, belong to a bygone age.
It was only when Mrs Toker signed up for an email alert service, and her inbox quickly became full, that she realised there were as many ‘reasons’ for non-existent trains as organisations running the railways, hence the call for the whole industry to take collective responsibility.
They included a ‘fault on signal system’; ‘operational incident’; ‘late running train in front’; ‘points failure’; ‘high winds forecast’; ‘speed restrictions because of high temperature’; ‘train crew delayed’; ‘line side equipment fault’ and a ‘power cut at a station’.
The next tranche included ‘a fault on the train in front’; ‘congestion’; ‘safety inspection’; ‘shortage of train crew’; ‘broken down train earlier’; ‘another safety inspection’; ‘trespassers on the track’; ‘fault on the train’ and ‘an ill passenger’.
And this at a time when Mr Grayling, who admitted to MPs last week that he didn’t have the specialist knowledge to overrule officials on timetable changes, had promised that getting the North’s train services back on track was his number one priority. If only.
Though some incidents, like last Friday’s storms, are beyond the control of the railway authorities, the fragility of the network is a recurring theme as those trains taken out of service at the height of the timetable turmoil are reinstated. “How are people and businesses supposed to plan their day?” asks Mrs Toker quite reasonably.
She’s not alone. The hard-hitting report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, headed by George Osborne, the former Chancellor, put the shambles on the TransPennine Express and Northern franchises in a financial – and human – context. Its critique, Devolving our Railways, estimated the area’s economy took a £38m hit and Mr Osborne said that “the Northern Powerhouse is crying out for more devolution”.
He’s right. Passengers are fed up with being passed from the proverbial pillar to post as they try to find out about journeys or how to get compensation, a culture that stems from the leaderless Department for Transport. They just want the confidence that they will get from A to B, and future reforms to franchises, and Network Rail’s remit, need to reflect this.
It’s all the more reason why Chris Grayling, the Macavity-like Minister who responded to growing calls for his resignation by saying that he doesn’t run the railways, should call in proper experts like Janet Toker.
And that means passing control of this region’s railways to Transport for the North and giving this body the policy and financial powers it needs to get services back on track for the people who matter most here – the passengers.