It’s been a tediously long and hot summer for passengers on Northern Rail, with mass delays, cancellations and public headlines making for an uncomfortable few weeks. With furore still refusing to quieten down, we’re left wondering what will happen to Northern next – and if their crises are indicative of greater problems plaguing Britain’s infrastructure.
For those of us who commute, we probably haven’t given a second thought to timetable changes gone by. Unfortunately for Northern Rail customers, this summer’s timetable alterations will likely never be forgotten.
Even now, weeks after mass cancellations and finger-pointing – which even saw some critics accuse Northern of a ‘cover-up’ – passenger fury is still burning bright, and the franchise finds itself firefighting more often than not. There’s a chance, of course, that Northern’s summer crisis is part of a larger problem – or that it’s time for the franchise to change hands.
The Longest Summer
Over the summer, Northern Rail has frequently found itself in the media spotlight – a light hotter and more unforgiving than even the sun during the recent heatwave. The bulk of the headlines have seemingly revolved around Northern Rail’s inability to implement schedule changes as needed, and to rectify issues which left passengers distressed and employers faced with a drop in productivity.
The action Northern took in response to the timetable chaos was equally controversial: they cancelled 165 daily train journeys in order to instil some order in the schedules, leaving suburban passengers subsisting on limited rail travel and commuters in even hotter water as they struggled to balance life and work either side of their train journeys.
Unfortunately, the summer’s crises don’t end there, with the rail franchise also finding itself facing harsh criticism from the government, disability advocates and the general public after a disabled passenger found herself humiliated when a train guard told her she couldn’t put her motorised scooter – necessary due to the debilitating Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and recent surgery – on the train.
With developments continuing around Northern Rail’s timetable, passengers being marginalised, and others publicly speaking out about travel anxieties, the heat has truly been turned up for Northern Rail.
The Cause Behind the Chaos
Many are left wondering, as they wait on the platform or attempt to book a journey in advance, where all the chaos – and the resulting anger – has come from.
According to Northern Rail officials, the most recent Sunday cancellations were the result of staff members making themselves unavailable – an excuse which has been met with a great amount of frustration from passengers and employers. It’s possible that this is the truth, and Northern must do something to change internal policies, but it is equally as likely to be a symptom of larger problems for the country’s rail franchises.
Even the initial scheduling chaos – mirrored in Govia Thameslink’s own disastrous timetable alterations – can be attributed to Network Rail refusing to grant Northern’s request to delay changes to train times. Rulings against Network Rail further cemented that train operators were not provided with the conditions needed to meet their obligations.
On the ground, however, this does little to negate passengers’ anger. After all, they have little time or awareness of the politics happening behind closed doors, but perhaps it’s time that they did – after all, this summer of discontent could be telling us something about greater.
Infrastructure Under Strain
A recent review into the country’s infrastructure, published in July, gave some insight into the wider issues at play across the country. It would seem, from the viewpoint of the review, that problems with transport infrastructure are not limited to the North.
Instead, as illustrated in comments made by former Network Rail head Sir John Armitt, the current rail franchise model is apparently ‘bust’, with rail operators risking revenue while the government has to take back some franchises for the sake of passengers. The resultant friction – between operators, the government, and most importantly of all, passengers – has put a strain on the UK’s infrastructure.
As more people join the dots between the poor performance of Northern Rail and Arriva Trains Wales (both Arriva-owned franchises), it’s entirely possible that public outcry will soon see fresh calls for franchises to be axed.
Meanwhile, the question of infrastructure investment and the North-South divide adds further weight to the notion that there’s more at play than the public first suspect. In response to HS2 and the need for improved rail and road links, a cross-party group of MPs have demanded £100bn investment in Northern infrastructure by 2050 – lofty ambitions that require a long-term commitment.
Whether or not that investment will ever come – particularly in the face of slowing governmental interest in the Northern Powerhouse – we won’t know for some time, but balancing out the regional divide and working to reform the franchise model might just be the reinvigoration the country’s transport needs right now.
The Blame Game
In the meantime, Northern finds itself at the mercy of angered passengers, with further compensation and refunds taking their toll on the franchise. Although it’s easy for passengers to direct a finger squarely at the brand responsible for upsetting disabled members of the public and directly affecting their work-life balance, it’s also fair to consider that a greater game is playing out – one that pits the franchise owners against the government, customers, and their own staff.
Luckily, lessons are being learned in the process. To the relief of many, December’s scheduled timetable changes have been scaled back to prevent further chaos over the festive period. All the time in the spotlight might be what saves Northern Rail after all, with commentators and critics taking the question of what to do with the UK’s transport seriously. Let’s just hope that the investment and reform needed is delivered in a timely fashion – no delays here, please.
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