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If one were asked to demonstrate the failings of the rail franchise system, it would be hard to better the chaos of the Northern and Govia networks since ‘improved’ timetables were introduced last month.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling was accused in Parliament of running the railways “like a Carry On film” and may well feel “they’ve all got it in for me”, deservedly no doubt in the view of passengers.
The chaos ought to help the existing and emerging regional transport bodies in their arguments that they could run regional rail better.
This week saw a fresh detonation in the north about lack of progress with rail devolution after the Department for Transport (DfT) was caught red-handed in a dubious exercise in ‘managed expectation’.
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy (Lab) acquired internal DfT emails in which officials talked in disparaging terms about some northern rail links and about purporting to plan to axe some lines so passengers would be grateful when parts instead survived.
Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan said of Ms Nandy’s emails: “This is the low water mark in the confidence of the North in Whitehall. I’ve worked there and it’s full of intelligent good people. But too many times the culture and system defaults towards the ‘provinces’ being secondary and ‘valueless’. Only answer is to move powers North.”
Doncaster MBC’s chief executive Jo Miller joined in saying: “I’m sick and tired of decisions being made in Whitehall by people who don’t understand and don’t often care.”
Attempts to make a north v south point may ring hollow with commuters stuck on Govia’s sprawling franchise - which stretches from Sussex to Peterborough via London - where delays and cancellations have been almost as bad as on Northern and where devolution has also been stymied.
LGC editor Nick Golding argued in a recent briefing how the rail fiasco “could provide the greatest opportunity to make the case to further localise responsibility for rail”.
Regional bodies might well run rail better than the DfT, but this would be a substantial new undertaking needing some additional skills. Running a decent train service depends not just on political control but an alignment of Network Rail - which owns the track and infrastructure -, train operators, sufficient drivers trained on the relevant routes, and enough rolling stock.
A partial working model exists in Transport for London. Since 2007 it has taken over some formerly franchised suburban lines - now branded London Overground - where it retains most of the financial risk and sets fares, procures rolling stock, decides service levels and appoints an operator.
TfL wanted to take over suburban routes running into the Home Counties, a course supported even by former Conservative mayor Boris Johnson. This though was blocked by Mr Grayling, who has shown a marked disinclination to devolve anything.
However, might he now decide that he’d sooner someone else were blamed for the infamy of Northern and Govia?
By Mark Smulian, reporter