Devolving our railways: Learning the lessons from a summer of Northern chaos

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 5th November 2018 by Henri Murison.

This summer saw an unacceptable and deeply damaging series of delays and cancellations to rail services right across the Northern Powerhouse. Companies were faced with a decimated workforce, employees missed meetings, career opportunities and some even lost their jobs, and parents were left stranded, unable to get home to put their children to bed. This on a network where the status quo was nowhere near fit for purpose in the first place, with slow, unreliable services without the appropriate level of capacity to serve commuters trying to move between our great cities.

As an organisation that represents the interests of some of the biggest employers in the North, as well as businesses of all sizes, we were inundated with stories of how the six weeks of chaos caused by new timetables being rolled out affected Northern companies and their staff. Our report, Devolving our railways: Learning the lessons from a summer of Northern chaos, calculated that more than £38m was lost in productivity – almost one million hours of workers’ time. And that was using figures from Northern Rail alone; TransPennine Express refused to release the number of their trains seriously delayed or cancelled. From publicly-available figures, however, it is clear that the scale of the problem was far worse. On some routes on Trans Pennine Express, half of all trains were very late or cancelled, and even weeks later more than 20% of services on the North Trans Pennine route were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled.

Northern Rail acted swiftly to put in place an emergency timetable, but Trans Pennine Express did not; with some of their trains the worst performers. Just over 15% of their North Trans Pennine route trains were very late or cancelled trains; the worst day for performance being Tuesday 22nd May when just under 40% of services were in this category.

As the title of our report suggests, there is a clear solution to preventing this from ever happening again – devolution. Devolved deals in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and Tees Valley, as well as Sheffield City Region, and with a deal in North of Tyne take powers which can best be held at the city region level. However, strategic transport is a function which needs to be dealt with at pan-Northern level.

However, Transport for the North (TfN) – which was set up to manage the North’s roads, railways, ports and airports – has limited power and control, with a large amount of their work with many remaining powers retained by the Department of Transport. Having produced their Strategic Transport Plan in January, proposing transformational transport schemes including Northern Powerhouse Rail and smart ticketing, and with a powerful Board made up of civic leaders and businesses across the North, TfN did not have the have full powers of oversight necessary to hold Network Rail and the train operators to account and act decisively and quickly to prevent disruption.

Our recommendations went further. We proposed that TfN become the super client for the Trans Pennine Route Upgrades, which is set to cost £3bn, moving a number of civil servants from Whitehall up the North under the auspices of TfN who could then manage Network Rail’s performance independently from government alongside their current role helping hold train operators to account. The cause of the timetabling fiasco in the summer was engineering works in the Bolton area running behind schedule, something that DfT current oversight mechanisms did not work to correct effectively.

In addition, we have called for up to £100bn in long-term strategic transport funding until 2050, with all Northern rail and road spending to be managed by TfN as opposed to directly by other agencies. This would allow them to have a far more strategic overview of where money needed to be spent. Finally, we want Northern Powerhouse Rail to have the same strong partnership with DfT that Crossrail 2 and HS2 have benefitted from.

Since our report was published, we have made significant progress on our overall aim to significantly improve the state of our railways. The Northern Powerhouse APPG, which brings together MPs, peers and civic leaders across the North, united to write to the Chancellor to make the case for the £100bn investment, and we have received positive feedback from DfT ministers and officials about our proposals around TfN’s super client role and further devolution.

Ultimately, two reviews – one to be carried out by Leader of Leeds City Council Judith Blake together with Rail Minister Jo Johnson MP and a longer-term review carried out by former British Airways Chief Executive Keith Williams and including NP11 Chair Roger Marsh – will need to be completed before we see any meaningful changes to the way our railways are run. But with the business case for Northern Powerhouse Rail being submitted in December and improvement works across the North beginning next year, we should see much-needed improvements to the network before long. After the chaos of this summer, they can’t come soon enough.

About the Author

This post was written by Henri Murison. Henri is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership