‘Off the Rails’, ‘NorthernFail’, ‘The great north fightback’ – these were just some of the headlines on the front pages of local papers in the north of England describing the nightmare for commuters which began when Northern Rail introduced new timetables.
In an attempt to improve service levels, 13% of journeys were cancelled and hundreds were rescheduled. More than 250 trains were cancelled on 29th May. Where trains ran at all, they were up to two hours late. And the entire rail service to the Lake District has been suspended for a number of weeks.
Social media was full of stories of students in tears at stations because they couldn’t get to their exams and workers fearing for their jobs because they can’t get to work. Transport Minister Grayling, who signed off on the changes, was forced to make a statement in the Commons where he announced an independent inquiry in the debacle and a review into whether the companies involved had breached their contracts, and what sanctions they should face, if any.
We don’t need an inquiry to understand the cause of all this chaos. The reality is that profit-hungry operators have been cutting corners for years – relying on drivers to work rest days, making timetables tighter with no slack to pick up delays, saving on routine maintenance resulting in more faults with the engines and breakdowns.
Even though Network Rail has been brought back into government hands, it is still using dozens of outside contractors, including Carillion, which recently went bust. These contractors making promises to win the contract at the cheapest bid, which they then can’t deliver on. A number of projects have subsequently over-run.
Calls are being made for operators to lose the franchise if things don’t approve. It wouldn’t be a first. The government has had to take back the East Coast Main Line franchise after its franchisees abandoned it. It is time for government to admit that privatisation has failed and to bring the railways back into public ownership, which Corbyn stated would be one of the first acts of a future Labour government. In Northern Ireland, we must resist the creeping privatisation of our public transport, which will lead to cuts and chaos and hit deprived and isolated communities hardest.
By Dagmar Walgraeve