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Ministers could act now to address the chaos on our railways

3 min read

This month on one of the major rail routes in the country – TransPennine Express – connecting towns and cities across the North, hundreds of services have been cancelled. For tens of thousands of people it has made rail travel next to impossible, and the cost to the regional economy is huge.

Businesses willing to invest in the North look at this chaos and think twice. People are cut off from vital services, from jobs and opportunities.

With a service in meltdown, the Conservatives have been so distracted, they appear to have barely noticed. Passengers will be horrified that, despite the chaos, neither the former, nor the current Secretary of State, has uttered a single word.

It shouldn’t be this way. Ministers have it within their power to act, today. They could demand a contractually binding plan to restore services, with clear targets and penalties.

A wholesale failure to hold operators to account has seen poor performance rewarded time and again

They could unblock an offer on rest-day working, reportedly sat on the Secretary of State’s desk, which could improve services in the short term. But instead they are actively getting in the way of an offer.

And if the operator fails to deliver, they should begin withdrawing the contract providing the long-term stability the line is in desperate need of.

But passengers are paying the price for a crisis long in the making, and it is clear the responsibility for this fiasco lies firmly at the door of ministers. The dysfunctional, fractured system they have created has seen passengers come last.

A wholesale failure to hold operators to account has seen poor performance rewarded time and again. On Avanti West Coast, where half of all trains are late, and there have been 60,000 complaints, ministers handed over £17m in performance and management fees and a lucrative contract extension.

Over years, the churn of private operators with little incentive to invest in long-term decisions and workforce planning, has left a reliance on rest-day working and a chronic driver shortage contributing to the chaos we are seeing.

This cannot go on. But rather than act, ministers have stalled their flagship plans to reform the railways. And with 19,000 fewer rail services across the country, and overcrowding becoming common place, ministers are demanding operators make further steep cuts.

Their solution to the chaos, is more of the same. Over a decade, failure from successive Conservative governments to lay the groundwork for the century ahead has left the infrastructure a functioning rail service relies on in dire straits.

The Transpennine Route Upgrade, one of the major rail routes in the country connecting Manchester and Leeds, was abandoned time and again by the Conservatives.

The consequence has been huge. In 2019, just prior to the pandemic, just 38 per cent of trains across this route were on time. No less than 60 times the Conservatives promised to connect our great northern towns and cities and deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 in full. And they failed.

This lost decade of broken Tory promises has been bad for passengers, bad for business, and risked leaving the North in the slow-lane for decades to come.

That’s why an incoming Labour government will end this farce.  We will bring an end to the failing status quo that is not serving passengers.

The next Labour government will build the infrastructure fit for the century ahead by delivering the Elizabeth Line for the North, building Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2.

And we will end the fractured, fragmented system by bringing the railways back into public ownership as contracts expire, and putting passengers back at the heart of our rail network.

A system where the public interest comes first, and which prioritises sustainable, long-term decision making that delivers a better future for the people who depend on our rail network.

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