Devolution is critical to a successfully reformed local railway
The industry must be restructured to allow city regions to make their own decisions, says Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham
At the end of last month, standing on the banks of the Manchester ship canal in Salford Quays alongside the mayor of Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram, we called on the transport secretary to strip Northern rail of its franchise and put in place an operator of last resort.
This wasn’t a decision taken lightly. We have been extremely patient with Northern and it has been given plenty of time. But enough is enough. Too many promises have not been delivered and, 12 months on from last year’s rail timetable chaos, Northern’s senior management has failed to show they are prepared to take the action required to restore public confidence.
Train services across Greater Manchester and the north-west remain unreliable and overcrowded. Sunday services are still subject to widespread cancellation and promises of new rolling stock have not been kept.
The people of Greater Manchester deserve much better than this. We are a growing, thriving city region. People want and deserve a transport system that works together and works well.
As mayor of Greater Manchester, I want to make all travel easier for the people of this city region – for shoppers, for commuters, for businesses, for our young and for our old. I want everybody here to be able to make the journeys they need to make, when they need to make them – reliably and affordably.
For this to happen we need rail services to be integrated with our wider transport system. The weak link is our rail service. Our local network operates in a silo and nearly all decisions are made by people outside Greater Manchester. It is no wonder passengers feel neglected.
It is clear the industry needs fundamental reform. The recent new franchises promised people a huge improvement but very few of these promises have been delivered. There are complex reasons for this, but the most important thing is not what has gone wrong; it is the path taken to put things right that matters now.
After being in post for a little over two years as mayor, I am convinced that devolution is critical to a successfully reformed local railway. While the establishment of Transport for the North has been an important step, the railway industry must be restructured to allow city regions to make more decisions for and on behalf of local people. Which is why I am calling for greater devolution – first of ‘GM Rail’ services and, possibly later, of infrastructure too.
I am not calling for GM Rail for devolution’s sake. Recent history has shown us that the current arrangements for the rail industry have failed the customer. It is only through taking this action that we can restore the trust of the public and deliver a rail network that finally works for its passengers.
"Giving us greater control will help us address some of the limitations of the rail system"
I am calling for devolution so that I can deliver a genuinely accountable railway network that is part of an integrated transport network, working in the best interests of the travelling public. Crucially, giving us greater control will help us address some of the limitations of the rail system, particularly around capacity and ticketing.
I want to make it clear that I do not blame the staff of Northern, who have worked hard over the last year in very difficult circumstances. I believe they, and the travelling public, have been let down by Northern’s management who have had ample opportunity to turn things around but have failed to do so.
Change on this scale takes time and hard work, and we are more than willing to take on our share of the heavy lifting. But time is pressing. We have already waited too long to see a rail service befitting one of the world’s most dynamic places.
We need action now.
Andy Burnham is mayor of Greater Manchester