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Amid the Northern Rail chaos, the North has found its voice
by Zak Deakin
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The spectacular meltdown of the North’s transport network continues following the introduction of the new nationwide timetable over two weeks ago. Northern Rail’s services have become so unreliable that a creative group of frustrated travellers have set up the ‘Northern Fail’ app to keep their fellow commuters updated as they are left stranded at stations across Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Merseyside.
This all raises important questions for the Northern Powerhouse agenda. Has this crisis exposed it as an illusion fast running out of steam, or does it demonstrate the desperate need for wider and deeper devolution?
The issues of today are decades in the making, northern leaders have long argued that poor connectivity is the biggest barrier to growth that the north faces. To talk only of the disruption though would be to neglect the decisions which have allowed this situation to become so dismal. This is not a crisis limited to the incompetency of a franchise provider.
Earlier in the year the IPPR North reported that if the North had received the UK average spending on infrastructure per head each year for the past ten years, it would have received £10 billion more. This government alone has delayed the electrification programme in the North, refused to sign off on extra platforms at Manchester Piccadilly and dismissed the case for further devolution of transport powers.
Now, following on from the formation of TfN, northern politicians; business leaders and media outlets have come together to say enough is enough. And they are gaining traction. It has taken a full-scale crisis and most of the North grinding to a halt for Whitehall and the national press to turn their attention northwards for a change.
Labelled as a watershed moment by Andy Burnham, the ‘One North’ campaign has certainly set its ambitions high – calling for the government to grant TfN full powers to manage all northern infrastructure, including complete oversight over the Northern Rail franchise. The Department for Transport is making this out to be an isolated incident, but successive governments have proven to be unable to deliver an effective transport system in the region. Now as Chris Grayling dithers, the North is readying to take back control.
Getting our transport system right is about more than just trains running on time. Access to good rail links influences planning and development decisions and is critical to the success of both smaller communities and our city centres. City centres blossom from the roots that feed it, and those roots stretch as far as the small towns dotted along the train tracks. But when these towns are reliant on such a withering transport network, this presents a real threat to their own sustainability and future prosperity.