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In defence of Northern Rail

29 January 2020

5:27 PM

29 January 2020

5:27 PM

What a joy it is to travel on trains in Germany, where services are fast, efficient and always seem to arrive on time. Why can’t we have Deutsche Bahn running our own trains, rather than those imbeciles at Northern Rail, whose slovenly late-running services using rattling old rolling stock from the 1980s were so bad that its services are to be nationalised from 1 March?

Oh, but hang a minute. Deutsche Bahn already is running those trains. Northern Rail’s parent company, Arriva, is a subsidiary of the German state railway company. In which case the question becomes: why can a company that seems to manage to run rail services in Germany make such a hash of running rail services in and around Leeds and Manchester? That is a question, perhaps, that could occupy an entire conference, but I’ll make just a few pointers here.

Firstly, Deutsche Bahn, when operating trains in its homeland, doesn’t have to contend with Mick Cash and his RMT union. The RMT has spent the past three years in a fight to the death with Northern Rail over the issue of driver-only operated trains. Northern Rail wanted to remove guards – not entirely unreasonably since their whole purpose, to run back down the line in the event of a breakdown and stop another train crashing into the back of their own, has been redundant since improvements in signalling technology in the 1860s. Driver-only operated trains have been running safely in Britain since 1982 – yes, even British Rail was prepared to make staff redundant when their jobs became unnecessary. In some respects, as the Office of Rail and Road concluded, they are safer than trains which use a guard to help dispatch a train from a platform as there is less potential for misunderstanding.

The RMT continued with its strikes even after Northern Rail relented and assured all guards that they would continue to be employed in a slightly different role as ‘conductors’, selling tickets, helping disabled passengers on and off trains etc. The RMT is pretty openly engaged in a political battle to reverse privatisation and return the railways to public ownership – in which case, thanks to Grant Shapps’ decision today, it is pretty well job done. If the government had the power to close down the RMT, as it has Northern Rail, life for commuters would somewhat rosier.

Pointer number two. In Germany, Deutsche Bahn doesn’t have to deal with Network Rail, the government-owned company which owns the tracks and stations on Britain’s railway system. Its own role in the Northern Rail debacle has not been overlooked by the Office of Rail and Road, which just last week launched an investigation into this very subject. You can’t run trains if you are not able to use the tracks and that has been something of a problem in the North in recent months as infrastructure works have over-run or scaled back. But the government didn’t wait for ORR’s conclusions on Network Rail and effectively lay the whole blame for poor services on Northern Rail.

This is not to completely excuse Northern Rail, which has failed in its promise to deliver new rolling stock to replace old Pacer trains (which are essentially a 1970s Leyland bus bolted on to the chassis of a goods waggon) and which bungled its timetable changes in 2018. But there is a bigger story going on which is not going to be solved by taking it out on a single train company.

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