Photograph: Nathan Stirk / Getty Images
If you want to truly understand the full extent of this country’s current dysfunction, forget about the chaos going on in Westminster and instead spend a day trying to travel across the north of England.
By now, if we are to believe the 2019 Tory manifesto, we had to experience the joys of having leveled up. Instead, people’s spirits are burdened with a daily diet of rail chaos.
At best, public transport not only facilitates the movement of people, but also promotes social mobility. Good transportation not only connects people with each other, but with jobs, education and opportunities. But for too long, northern towns and cities have been held back by second-class service, forced to overpay for a network that is too complex, fragmented, poorly managed and underfunded by the government.
Delays. Cancellations. Overcrowding. Not just on a bad day – passengers here have faced months of prolonged chaos. If this were happening in London or the South East, it would be a national scandal and action would be swift.
Related: Unreliable rail services in the north of England “ruin people’s lives”
Nearly one in five TransPennine Express services on the Manchester to Scotland route have been canceled in the past two weeks, with less than 70% of services on time. These statistics speak of a disjointed and poorly managed transportation system that simply doesn’t work for ordinary people – and it’s not the first time we’ve been here.
In 2019, we successfully campaigned to strip Northern of its franchise after years of poor performance. Three years later, however, little has changed. People’s daily reality remains the same: missed urgent appointments, late arrivals for work and school, cut off from vital public services, isolated from friends and families – and some people put into dangerous situations.
Just last week, a young girl passed out while traveling on a Northern three-car train between Liverpool and Manchester during the busy morning rush hour. If these problems persist, we will be stuck with a car-led recovery that threatens irreversible damage to the northern zero net targets. In this crucial moment for the health of our planet and local economies, the railways are not doing their duty.
But it would be unfair to place all the blame solely on the rail operators: the government must shoulder some of the blame. That’s why we’re asking whoever is the Secretary of Transportation when this Tory game of musical chairs is over, to act immediately with an urgent injection of funds into both the struggling Northern franchises and the bankrupt Avanti West Coast.
If that call isn’t heard in the Downing Street Echo Chambers, we are left with two options. Whether it’s to dissolve TransPennine Express and Northern and operate them as a single unified Northwest operator, or to allow services within the region to be operated as part of Merseyrail’s successful concession, something needs to be done.
The loss of productivity caused by poor public transport is costing our economies billions of pounds. Instead of being an engine of growth, the railways are not only holding back the prosperity of our regions, but also the rest of the UK plc.
And if you look at the financial investment we’ve received, it’s easy to see why our productivity lags behind other regions. In the north, the cost of transport is £ 349 per person. In London, it’s £ 864. Over the past decade, an extra £ 86 billion has been pumped into the capital. We are not critical of investment in the south, but concerned about the lack of investment in the north.
Ensuring broader connectivity from our regions to the rest of the country is vital to our long-term economic success. One of the few promising announcements of Liz Truss’s short-lived tenure as prime minister was her promise to supply all of Northern Powerhouse Rail, including a new double-track line running from Liverpool to Hull. Those who succeed must keep that promise.
Good connectivity is not and shouldn’t be focused solely on building better links between north and south. To rebalance the UK economy we also need west-to-east connectivity. But before we get on with the high-speed talk, the most pressing issue right now is that this essential network is barely moving.
Let’s say enough: the north deserves much more than this second-class service. It is time to act.