We know that asking people to get out of their vehicles and to adopt cleaner methods of transport like rail will be essential if we are to significantly reduce our emissions in the necessary timeframe. We are asking people to make different lifestyle choices, while knowing full well that rail in the north is a toxic combination of unreliable, uncomfortable and expensive, but it is not a big ask.
People in my part of the world are desperate to use trains, as Halifax is almost equidistant between Leeds and Manchester, but we cannot accommodate the demand or provide the service those passengers deserve. Passengers on the Calder Valley line face overcrowding that is uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. We are only just starting to see new trains replacing the Pacers, but driver shortages crippled Northern’s ability to operate those services, resulting in delayed and cancelled journeys. Given how long it takes to train a driver and the almost predatory poaching of Northern’s drivers by larger rail operators, there will not be a quick fix to the problem.
In the summer I spent a day with Northern Rail on the Calder Valley line and at Leeds train station, as the best way to understand where the problems are is to spend time with people at the coalface. It was both fascinating and terrifying to see just how fragmented and dysfunctional rail in the north is. My worry is that without investment in enhancing rail capacity across the north, both at the stations and on the tracks, we are setting up any train operating company or model to fail.
How can we both deliver a rail service that is fit for purpose and shrink carbon emissions from transport? I thank Stephen Waring of the Halifax and District rail action group for his unwavering attention to detail on all things rail-related. HADRAG launched its electric railway charter in May 2018.
The “Northern Sparks” report by the North of England Electrification Task Force was published in 2015, and its purpose was to advise the Government on where they should focus their investment. The report recommended full electrification of the Calder Valley line as its first priority. Sadly, there has been no progress to date. I fear that, for all the anguish about the state of the railways in my part of the world, the current proposals lack any sense of ambition. Even the most common-sense, low-key improvements, which have been identified time and again as essential, take far too long to deliver, if they are delivered at all.
Network Rail planned an upgrade scheme back in 2014 to provide two extra through platforms at Manchester Piccadilly and increased capacity at Oxford Road station. The scheme has been with three different Secretaries of State over five years, and still no progress. Without it, we will continue to see delays and cancellations right across the region, not least on the Calder Valley line.
At Leeds station, which has become another crippling bottleneck, a single new platform is being built to increase capacity, but it is not expected to be finished for at least another year. We need to take a good look at why even the most necessary works have taken so long to deliver and at what can be done to speed up the process to ensure Network Rail projects are a reality for passengers without the years of stalling, red tape and endless reviews we are currently seeing.
Finally, the failings of rail in the north are in no way the responsibility of frontline staff. The vast majority of Northern Rail’s workforce are good people who are doing their best in an incredibly challenging operating environment. I am pleased that the Secretary of State was able to reassure them, when Northern was taken into public ownership, that their jobs are safe and that improvements to staff facilities will be forthcoming.
If we are to meet our targets for decarbonisation and end our contribution to global emissions by 2050, adopting rail in a serious way will be the most obvious route to driving down transport emissions. By investing in rail infrastructure, we can simultaneously unlock the potential of the north. People want to use trains, so we will not have an uphill struggle to change behaviour, as there is clearly already demand. It is up to this Government to rise to the challenge and deliver a rail service that is both good for passengers and good for the planet.