It will take more than the promise of a few faster trains in some distant decade to satisfy my friends in the North. They have put up with sub-standard trains for decades and only last month were hit by a series of stealth fare rises inflicted only on the Northern rail franchise which covers most train services in the region.
Rail passengers in the North have been complaining about a particularly cheap and nasty type of train called Pacers which were introduced in the 1980s in response to a temporary shortage of rolling stock. Despite promises they were only a short term measure, more than 30 years later 140 of the 165 sets originally built still rattle along tracks in the north. They are rather like buses on wheels with hard bus-type seats and would no more be tolerated by commuters down south than the open decked cattle trucks run by the Great Western in the 1840s.
Despite long campaigning by passenger groups to see off the Pacers, a consultation document issued in January by the Department for Transport on the future of rail in the north suggested that they may still be around for another couple of decades. Rather than, as previously expected, being scrapped in 2019 because they do not comply with disability legislation, they might be ‘adapted’ to keep them operating into the 2020s and 2030s, when possibly they might connect with shiny multimillion pound new HS2 trainsets to take passengers to smaller Northern towns. The document seemed to suggest, too, that there was a trade off for rail passengers in the north between either having new trains or facing cuts on routes and massive fare rises.
As if that hadn’t angered northern rail passengers enough, they found themselves facing fare rises way above the rate of inflation last month. One of the compensations of travelling on the ancient trains is that they were cheap, especially when travelling into the big town centres for a night on the razz. However, in a little-publicised move, Abellio, the Dutch state owned train operator, under orders from the Department for Transport decided to scrap the provision of cheap return fares in the evening peak. That meant, for example, a peak return from Rochdale to Wigan rose from the previous off-peak fare of £4.20 to £11, a 162 per cent rise. Local bars, restaurants and even theatres are reporting lower patronage and the reduction in passenger numbers may lead to train services being withdrawn.
So here’s a plan to get back in the North’s good books. HS2 is an overpriced railway costing £50bn which is unlikely to bring about the promised regeneration of the North and, in fact, according to some economists may have the opposite effect of boosting investment in an already overheated London. Therefore, how about scrapping or postponing HS2 and using the money to provide new trains and faster services in the North, which might even help the Tories to an odd seat or two in the region at the forthcoming general election, since a vague promise of HS3 will certainly not do that?