It’s a familiar scene on train station platforms across the north: would-be passengers groaning with frustration as noticeboards announce cancellation after cancellation. Then, when a train finally does arrive, it’s a miserable scramble to find a human-sized space where one might be able to stand, never mind sit down.
Pretty much every morning the official Northern Rail Twitter account appears to become a parody of itself as some poor soul on the social media team is handed the task of tentatively announcing disruptions to services, and all the while passengers are forced to contact their bosses to inform them they’re going to be late, or maybe they won’t make it in at all.
In the past few weeks, the situation has reached tipping point. According to figures recently collected by the Manchester Evening News, Northern cancelled 900 of its trains in just one fortnight at the beginning of May. Last Monday, on the first working day of the operator’s new timetable, 327 services were fully or partially cancelled, and there were 48 reduced carriages. One passenger tweeted that she was forced to stay in a hotel overnight because she couldn’t risk not being able to get to work the following day. She signed off the tweet with: “I miss my son right now.”
Changes to services are bound to have teething problems, but Northern’s consistent poor performance equates to thousands of passengers whose lives are significantly affected by a shoddy service we are now so used to it almost feels normal. It is absolutely unfathomable that anybody should be stranded in a hotel overnight simply because a rail operator cannot effectively run itself, especially when passengers are regularly hit with price hikes.
It’s just not good enough, is it? The simple act of catching a train should not cause people such anxiety. Life is hard enough without having to physically and mentally prepare yourself for a short train journey as if you are about to run a marathon.
Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has called on new statutory body Transport for the North to investigate whether Northern is fit for purpose, and I’m sure regular train users are watching eagerly to see whether transport secretary Chris Grayling is going to step in in the same way he has in the case of the East Coast Main Line, which has been temporarily renationalised after Virgin and Stagecoach could no longer meet the promised payments in the £3.3bn contract.
Our region’s public transport is holding back the growth of our communities and the people who live in them. It should be no bother for commuters to nip between northern towns and cities in the same way Londoners are able to easily slide through the capital’s suburbs. Why shouldn’t a person living in Blackpool be able to take a job in Preston and comfortably rely on public transport to get them there? In theory, it’s only 20 minutes down the road, but our chaotic rail services, combined with ridiculous prices, mean in most cases it’s probably not worth the hassle.
The north’s public transport forms a vital part of our bid to become the Northern Powerhouse government has promised we will be. If we want our region to see real growth we need an efficient and reliable train service that connects our towns and cities and supports people as they go about their daily lives, rather than causing distress and upheaval. At the moment that dream seems a long way off.