Political placebo

Something must be done. Something must be seen to be done. But will it actually make a difference?

Happy New Year!

As a politician, the desire to do something when the public calls for action must be overwhelming.

What better way to establish your credentials as a man or woman of the people than by doing something to show you really care about their plight?

The problem, of course, is that such actions rarely make a difference. You’re just doing something to look as if you’re doing something, which is what people think your job is. Whereas, sometimes, the best thing is to do nothing at all.

Which brings me to Grant Shapps’s announcement that he’s going to do something about the (underperforming) Northern franchise. He hasn’t specified exactly what – it could be a management contract, or Northern By Arriva A Deutsche Bahn Company could lose the franchise entirely – but he’s definitely going to do something.

The simple truth is that it doesn’t matter what he does – nothing will change. It’s a ‘political placebo’.

I don’t say that to be my usual Negative Nelly but trains will not be delivered any faster, crews will not be trained any quicker, fares will not suddenly fall, drivers will not suddenly volunteer to work every rest day and not take industrial action, all for the common good. This isn’t Brexit you know…

The bigger picture

There are several things to remember, the first being that Northern isn’t East Coast. The East Coast franchise, now run by the Government-backed LNER, paid money back to the Treasury as well as its shareholders. Northern, by contrast, is a net recipient of funds.

Secondly, many (but not most and certainly not all) of Northern’s problems come from elsewhere. Delayed infrastructure projects such as trans-Pennine electrification meaning that stock can’t be moved around so that crowding can be relieved being the obvious one. Wholly cancelled infrastructure projects such as platforms 15 and 16 at Manchester Piccadilly is another.

But even if trains were longer, that doesn’t mean that station platforms are long enough for them. Even Leeds Station has problems, now that the longer TransPennine services take up the whole of platforms 15 and 16; platform 17 can’t be (easily) extended either. The new platform 0 seems scant compensation, as well as being on the wrong side of the station (more on this next week).

We all want a better, faster, more frequent rail service but we’re trying to squeeze the railway equivalent of a quart into a pint pot, with different stock and different modes of traction running at different speeds on infrastructure that is past its best. And that’s before we get to bridge strikes, trespass incidents and other external operating difficulties.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, state operator Deutsche Bahn has cut fares for long-distance travel to provide a better environmentally-friendly alternative to the car. Couldn’t make it up, could you?

Responsible adults

If I was Transport Minister, the last thing I’d want would be to be ‘in charge’ of this!

It’s also worth going back to the commitments in the original franchise agreement, which was created and agreed by… the Department for Transport and the 25 Local Transport Authorities in the north of England. The same people who also signed off on the TransPennine Express franchise, which has its own problems. Northern might already be in breach of franchise commitments by not introducing Driver-Controlled Operation, for example.

It always amuses me that various City Region leaders and mayors want more control over something they already have 50% control of, and aren’t doing so well with.

Another one of those “I was there” moments. The Partnership Agreement between the DfT and Rail North (now part of Transport for the North) was signed at a One North event held at Liverpool 2 container port on Friday 20 March 2015. My birthday, and also the day of the partial solar eclipse. I then had to convey the signed Rail North Partnership documents back to Leeds and hand them over to our legal chief for depositing somewhere safe. Joy.

Northern’s problems are just a reflection of the wider ills facing the rail network. I’d much rather see a minister or Secretary of State say how the underlying structure of the railways was going to be fixed. Wouldn’t you?