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Never let a good crisis go to waste: rail fiasco makes the case for devolution

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Commentary on how rail’s timetabling mess can spur the case for an end to the status quo

Devolution has had its successes but – despite what local government would like – it hasn’t necessarily been the case that the public have been clamouring for more powers and controls to be handed down to individual areas.

A ComRes survey from February 2016 showed 38% of adults agreeing that the devolution of centrally-held powers is likely to have a positive effect on local services against the 17% who disagreed. Yes, this constituted a positive response but hardly constitutes the public chomping ministers’ arms off to localise power.

The turnout in last year’s mayoral contests was not disastrous, but the 21-34% recorded was hardly the overwhelming mandate for this new tier of government that would conclusively show combined authorities are here to stay.

However, could it be that the current rail crisis, following on from the biggest national timetable upheaval since the Victorian era, offers mayors the best opportunity to make a case to win new powers?

The new national timetable was brought in in order to create extra capacity after demand for rail services has doubled since 1994 to 1.7 billion annually. In order to make space for extra services, all Govia Thameslink and most Northern services have been changed.

Some disruption was expected but not the total chaos that many commuters have endured in the past fortnight.

Greater Manchester CA has given figures for the scale of the impact of the re-timetabling on the city’s commuters. On 22 May, at least 147 trains were cancelled – a figure which had almost doubled to 281 come 29 May.

CA mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) yesterday urged transport secretary Chris Grayling to intervene to improve services or take steps to strip operator Arriva of its Northern franchise if services continued to worsen.

“When I spoke to Chris Grayling I told him that passengers could not continue to endure the miserable sub-standard service they had been facing for too long,” Mr Burnham said. “The fact that since my call the service has continued to decline is nothing short of a scandal. Northern’s performance is getting worse on this government’s watch and it is not acceptable. Ministers seems oblivious to the scale of this chaos and the impact this is having on people’s jobs and social lives on a daily basis.”

His Liverpool City Region CA counterpart Steve Rotheram (Lab) had already made a similar call on Mr Grayling to intervene.

He told the Liverpool Echo yesterday: “If Northern fail to adhere to the agreed action plan, then a process needs to be initiated to remove Arriva Rail North’s franchise to operate and look at models of public ownership.

“Chaos on the North’s rail network has been so extreme and so prolonged that, as a company, Northern have lost the benefit of the doubt.”

Mr Grayling has today blamed Network Rail for the ongoing problems on Northern trains for being “too late in finalising planned timetable changes” that were brought in on 20 May.

He said Network Rail was “too late in finalising planned timetable changes” which have caused widespread problems since they were introduced on 20 May.

This charge has effectively been admitted by Network Rail. In a statement of apology yesterday it said: “Unfortunately, as a result of the sheer number of changes required and the late running of some engineering improvements, the process took longer than anticipated, approvals for service changes were delayed and some timetable requests were changed.”

Network Rail insisted that the investment programmes on Northern services, like those in Thameslink will “in due course” provide “more capacity and reliability as intended”. But extra services “will only be re-introduced when we can do so reliably without any negative effect on the service”.

It added: “The industry continues to be confident that the new timetables will work well once bedded-in.”

However, we all know hell hath no fury like a commuter scorned. While it may well be the case that the new timetable will bring long-term benefits, those unable to get to or from work, or to see loved ones, do not have the patience to wait for timetables to “bed in” or to see the benefits of investment “in due course”.

The fragmented rail system has long let down passengers in the north and there is no bed of goodwill upon which the government, operators or Network Rail can call.

There is a very simple argument to make here: the Department of Transport has yet to sort out the mess; Network Rail has yet to sort out the mess; someone else should step in to do so.

Local and regional government must not let this crisis go to waste. It could provide the greatest opportunity to make the case to further localise responsibility for rail.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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