Thursday briefing: How the north’s rail services went off track

In today’s newsletter: Perhaps nowhere in the UK are trains more in a crisis than in the north of England, where problems are thought to be costing the region up to £400m a year. What could be done to fix it?

Good morning. Transport secretary Mark Harper went to Manchester yesterday to discuss the crisis in train cancellations across the north. Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne mayor, attended by Zoom: the train service was too unreliable for him to make the journey. West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin’s train was cancelled, but she made it in the end. Her train home had only half the carriages it was meant to.

There’s a pattern here: it’s only a month since Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Liverpool City Region metro mayor Steve Rotheram were late for a press conference on the same subject because their trains were cancelled. People who live outside the region might have their suspicions about whether these incidents were engineered for maximum political impact: surely trains can’t go wrong this frequently, they might ask. “Lol,” say the residents of the north of England, as they wearily refresh the National Rail Enquiries app yet again.

There are problems with rail services all over the UK, but the issues across the rest of the country pale in comparison to those in the north. For today’s newsletter, I’ve spoken to Helen Pidd, the Guardian’s north of England editor, about what’s gone wrong, how seriously it’s affecting people’s lives and what can be done to fix it. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Water | More than 70% of the English water industry is owned by foreign investment vehicles, the super-rich, businesses lodged in tax havens and pension funds, Guardian researcg has found. The disclosure comes amid calls for the industry to be held to account for sewage dumping, leaks and water shortages.

  2. Monarchy | A royal aide has resigned and apologised after a black guest, Ngozi Fulani, the founder of the charity Sistah Space, was left feeling “traumatised” after repeated questioning about her heritage despite having said she was a British national at a reception hosted by the queen consort.

  3. China | One of China’s most senior pandemic response officials has said the country is entering a “new stage and mission” in the latest indication of the government’s changing stance after mass protests against its zero-Covid policy. Vice-premier Sun Chunlan said China was taking a more “humane approach”.

  4. Prisons | Dominic Raab has been accused of presiding over a “foolish and unrealistic” prisons policy after the justice department was forced to request the emergency use of 400 police cells for inmates for the first time in 14 years.

  5. Christine McVie | Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Christine McVie has died at the age of 79. Bandmate Mick Fleetwood said part of his heart had “flown away today.”

In depth: ‘It’s like a cloud that’s permanently over everyone’s heads’

Trains at Stockport station, run by Avanti, on the West coast main line from Manchester to London Euston.
Passengers at Stockport station, run by Avanti, on the West coast main line from Manchester to London Euston. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

When I reach Helen, she is sitting on a train from Manchester to Preston. It’s stationary, but you guessed that already. “I need to get to court for a trial I’m covering for 10am, or 10.30 latest,” she said. “Last night I waited to see the cancellations that would be announced, and there were 60 across TransPennine Express, including quite a few on the line I needed to take. That’s probably going to be a problem, but delays on Northern, the other operator on the line, weren’t as easy to see. So I got up early to leave myself time.” Here’s what Helen found – note the bright red exclamation marks:

National Rail’s departure board from Romiley station yesterday morning – all trains cancelled.
National Rail’s departure board from Romiley station yesterday morning. Photograph: National Rail Enquiries

This will be a familiar story to anybody living in the north of England, which has endured dismal transport infrastructure for years – yet even by that standard, the recent problems on the network look like a genuine crisis.

***

How bad is the problem?

Pretty bad! Across the UK, services are at a low ebb: train cancellations are at their highest level since records began in 2015, with about one in 26, or just under 4%, being cancelled across the country. But operators in the North are doing significantly worse.

While TransPennine Express (TPE) will report cancellation rates of between 5.6% and 11.8% for the weeks between 23 October and 20 November, that figure takes advantage of a significant loophole which means that cancellations confirmed before 10pm the previous night don’t get included: add in those trains, and the figure balloons to 20-30%. (Read more about that in this story of Helen’s published earlier this week.)

The 60 trains TPE cancelled on Wednesday by that method is not unusual: Transport for Greater Manchester estimates that 50-80 a day are being pulled the night before. (They are not included in Delay Repay compensation.) Meanwhile, Avanti trains between London and Manchester have been reduced from three to one an hour.

In a survey published by watchdog Transport Focus yesterday, 28% of Avanti passengers said that their last journey was delayed, changed, or cancelled, as did 22% of TPE customers. Look at the forest of hands that shoot up when guests at the People’s Powerhouse conference are asked by Tracy Brabin who has recently had a train cancelled. Unsurprisingly, all those missing trains mean that the ones that are still running are severely overcrowded: see this grim account of problems on Avanti trains for more.

“It’s coming up to my 10th anniversary of howling about trains,” said Helen, who started reporting from the region in 2013. “It’s been bad throughout that time, but recently it seems to be getting worse.” And all of this is estimated by Transport North East to be costing the northern economy around £400m a year.

***

Why is it so bad?

The most pressing problem affecting the region’s trains is a shortage of people to drive them. “The business model relies on drivers being willing to do extra shifts on their rest days and to do overtime,” Helen said. “But because of bad industrial relations and rail strikes recently, they’ve unilaterally stopped.” There are high levels of sickness, too, which rail expert Christian Wolmar told the BBC was “really an expression of employee dissatisfaction”. Staff haven’t had a pay rise in more than two years.

The government has sought to blame unions for this – although RMT leader Mick Lynch says that Mark Harper has stepped away from his predecessor Grant Shapps’ “bellicose nonsense”. But, Helen points out, “relying on people to work so many more hours than they are supposed to is an unsustainable system”.

Underpinning that short-term personnel crisis are deeper-rooted problems which are the product, critics say, of years of under-investment. Last year’s integrated rail plan reduced capital investment by £36bn across the UK, with most of that shortfall hitting the north, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership says.

Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne mayor who Zoomed in to the meeting with Harper yesterday, told the Today Programme: “The infrastructure is Victorian, the signalling is the old-fashioned semaphore you’ll see from black and white movies … You can only get six trains in and out of Newcastle an hour heading south to the rest of the country.” Similarly, the line running from Liverpool to Hull is not electrified. “Find me a corridor like that anywhere in Europe,” Juergen Maier, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told Newsnight.

***

How does all that impact people’s lives?

It has a profound effect, Helen says, as her train starts to crawl forwards again. “It deeply affects people’s lives, and life chances.” Take the seaside town of Cleethorpes, where many residents badly need an efficient rail service to get to better-paying jobs in Manchester: 77 trains on that line were cancelled in the week to 25 November. “If you want a better-paid job or the chance to go to college somewhere else, you just can’t rely on it.”

The choice becomes to give up on your ambitions, move away (and deal another small blow to your home town’s economy), or use a car – which, Helen noted recently, is a significant factor in driving emissions.

Meanwhile, even life’s pleasures become an endurance test. “Do I risk going to a gig, or a theatre, or a football match if I might have to get a taxi home? What about childcare? It’s like a cloud that’s permanently over everyone’s heads.” Would the situation be allowed to persist if the same thing was happening in London or the south east? “Not a chance in hell.”

***

How can the problems be fixed?

The government has sought to link a deal on pay that would put an end to strike action – and likely mean the return of rest-day work and overtime – to accepting a new seven-day rota.

The region’s mayors have run out of patience with that approach, and while they described their meeting with Harper as “positive”, they added that “the time for warm words is over” and said that the government must not “reward these appalling levels of service by signing-off on contract extensions when they come up for renewal.” Harper, for his part, said that he would not block a rest day working agreement but said it was an “interim step”.

Meanwhile, almost 100 new drivers are meant to be in place for Avanti by the time of a timetable change due on 11 December – when more trains are supposed to be added to the schedule. But, says Helen, there is little obvious reason to hope for proper investment. “The most immediate problem for the government is whether it should allow these operators’ contracts to continue,” she said. “But the big structural issues are not going away.” Then she goes into a tunnel. She eventually gets to court 40 minutes late.

What else we’ve been reading

Twitter HQ in San Francisco
  • Twitter’s future remains uncertain after Elon Musk told staff that bankruptcy was not out of the question. But while the platform does not have the profit margins or user base of other social media sites, it has transformed journalismfour Guardian writers look back at 16 years of Twitter’s existence and the way it has changed their lives personally and professionally. Nimo

  • Jonathan Jones asked artists including Gilbert and George, Elizabeth Price, and Gillian Wearing to have a go at using those spookily effective AI image generators to create new pieces. The results are totally fascinating. Archie

  • It’s been almost three years since Covid-19 was first detected in China, and the country is still maintaining its zero-Covid policy. One resident wrote anonymously about what it’s like to live in perpetual lockdowns, and the moments of hope that keep them going. Nimo

  • Where are you from?” is a question freighted with other questions, writes Kohinoor Sahota, in the wake of the story about Susan Hussey’s interrogation of Ngozi Fulani at Buckingham Palace. “I know what I am actually being asked: why is the colour of your skin different? Why are you brown? Why aren’t you white? Why are you here? Should you be here?” Archie

  • Last year, Tim Jonze wrote a whole novel in 30 days (an unfathomable task) as part of National Novel Writing Month. For the last 12 months that book has sat unread on his shelf, so Jonze decided it was time to peruse its contents. Read the piece to get his verdict and have a giggle. Nimo

World Cup

A tense final round in Group C finished with Argentina defeating Poland 2-0 despite a missed penalty from Lionel Messi and Mexico beating Saudi Arabia 2-1. The results were enough to put Argentina and Poland through. Poland made it by the narrowest of margins, only ahead of Mexico on yellow card count until Salem al-Dawsari scored for Saudi Arabia in the 95th minute – but even then one more goal for Mexico would have been enough to take them through.

Earlier, France topped Group D despite losing 1-0 to Tunisia, while Australia made it to the round of 16 for the first time in 16 years with a famous 1-0 victory over Denmark, who finished bottom. Emma Kemp at Al Janoub Stadium called the goal “immediate sporting folklore” for Australia. Coach Graham Arnold said: “I’m just so proud and happy. This is what World Cups are for.”

---

For all the latest on Qatar, from the scandal to the scores, sign up to Football Daily – our free, sometimes funny, newsletter.

The front pages

Guardian front page 01 December

The Guardian reveals “70% of England’s water firms in foreign hands”, based on research conducted by the paper, with a lead picture story on former lady-in-waiting Lady Susan Hussey’s resignation from Buckingham Palace over her comments to Ngozi Fulani at a charity reception. The i says “UK playing with fire after Covid jabs U-turn, warn scientists,” while the Telegraph says millions will face disruptions with “Strikes on every day until Christmas”.

The Financial Times reports that “Brussels and Yellen turn up heat on Musk over Twitter”. The paper says that EU regulators are concerned the platform might not comply with new moderation laws. Most papers lead with the resignation of Lady Hussey. The Mirror says “Prince William’s godmother quits in race row,” while the Times headlines “William’s godmother quits over race row”. The Mail splashes with a full page story: “Meet and greet that sparked a royal disaster”.

Finally, the Sun focuses on the World Cup and England fans’ adoption of 90s pop star Chesney Hawkes after he provided half-time entertainment at their victory over Wales: “I am the One and Only 3 Lions mascot”.

Today in Focus

Members of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, Housing Works and GMHC hold a protest outside the NY District Attorney’s office.

Imprisoned for being HIV positive

Lashanda Salinas faced criminal charges in Tennessee after her former partner accused her of exposing him to the HIV virus. Although Lashanda had been on medication since she was a teenager, and says she was open about her status, she was convicted and is now on the sex offender registry.

Edwin Barnard, the Executive Director of the HIV Justice Network, tells Hannah Moore that these laws, often relics of the 1980s before medication was available, are a danger to public health.

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

Cartoon by Steve Bell

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Eric Otieno Sumba in Coulsdon in 2021.
Eric Otieno Sumba in Coulsdon in 2021. Photograph: Supplied image

Eric Otieno Sumba’s family moved from Kenya to Croydon in 1981, seven years before he was born, so his father could study psychiatry in the UK. In those years, his father worked in hospitals and his mother took typing lessons and looked after his older siblings. But by 1986 they wanted to return to Kenya, so they started over, this time in Nairobi. When Sumba was born, remnants of his families former life were dotted around his home, sparking a lifelong curiosity about the south London borough. More than three decades later, he visited his family’s old neighbourhood. His trip put the grainy pictures he had seen in photo albums into context, and he was overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity. “With my formerly frail claim to the family’s fabled anecdotes now substantiated,” Sumba writes, “I mentally formulated a message that I would post to the family WhatsApp group later that evening. The last-born had been to Coulsdon, and was now an equal.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

Contributor

Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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