Think Westminster’s a mess? It’s nothing compared to the north’s mismanaged rail system | Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram

Failed franchises are causing daily misery and costing local economies billions. If this was London, it would be a national scandal

If you want to truly understand the full extent of this country’s present 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 the 2019 Tory manifesto is to be believed, we were meant to be experiencing the joys of being levelled up. Instead, people’s spirits are being downtrodden by a daily diet of rail chaos.

At its best, public transport does not just facilitate the movement of people, it drives social mobility too. Good transport not only connects people with each other, but with work, education and opportunity. But for far too long, towns and cities across the north have been held back by a second-class service, forced to overpay for a network that is too complex, fragmented, mismanaged, and underfunded by government.

Delays. Cancellations. Overcrowding. Not just on one bad day: passengers here have faced months of sustained chaos. If this was happening in London or the south-east, it would be a national scandal and action would be swift.

Almost one in five TransPennine Express services on the route between Manchester and Scotland have been cancelled in the last fortnight, with less than 70% of services running on time. These statistics speak to a disjointed, mismanaged transport system that simply does not work for ordinary people – and it’s not the first time we’ve been here.

In 2019, we successfully led the campaign to strip Northern of its franchise after years of poor performance. Three years on, though, little has changed. The daily reality facing people remains the same: urgent appointments missed, late arrival at work and school, cut off from vital public services, isolated from friends and families – and some people put in dangerous situations.

Only last week, a young girl fainted while travelling on a packed three-carriage Northern train between Liverpool and Manchester during the busy morning rush hour. If these problems are allowed to persist, we will be stuck with a car-led recovery that threatens irreversible damage to the north’s net zero targets. At this crucial time for the health of our planet and local economies, rail is not pulling its weight.

But it would be unfair to lay all the fault solely at the door of rail operators – the government must bear some of the blame. That’s why we’re calling on whoever is transport secretary when this Tory game of musical chairs is over, to take immediate action with an urgent injection of funds into both ailing Northern franchises and the failing Avanti West Coast.

If that call isn’t heard in the echo chambers of Downing Street, we are left with two options. Whether that is disbanding TransPennine Express and Northern and running them as one unified north-western operator, or allowing services within the region to be run as part of the successful Merseyrail 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 a driver for growth, the railways are not only holding back our regions’ prosperity, but the rest of UK plc too.

And when you look at the financial investment we’ve received, it’s easy to see why our productivity lags behind other regions. In the north, transport spending is £349 per person. In London, it’s £864. Across the past decade, that’s £86bn more pumped into the capital. We are not being critical of investment in the south, but concerned about the lack of investment in the north.

Securing our regions’ wider connectivity to the rest of the country is vital to our long-term economic success. One of the few promising announcements from Liz Truss’s short-lived tenure as prime minister was her promise to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail in full – including a new twin-track line running from Liverpool to Hull. Whoever succeeds her must make good on that promise.

Good connectivity isn’t and shouldn’t be solely focused on building better links between the north and south. To rebalance the UK economy we need west to east connectivity, too. But before we get ahead of ourselves with talks of high-speed rail, the most pressing issue right now is that this essential network is barely moving.

We say enough is enough: the north deserves far more than this second-class service. It’s time for action.

  • Andy Burnham is mayor of Greater Manchester; Steve Rotheram is mayor of the Liverpool city region

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Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram

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