Only the bravest will ‘cross the wall’ and venture into the haunted forest for fear of being captured by wildlings.
As a proud northerner in exile in the south it has often felt as though this fictional depiction is one that plays out in the real world and the minds of decision makers in Westminster. Politicians and policy makers alike have been seemingly happy to ignore the necessity for Northern investment and the need to unleash the huge potential in Northern regions. That is until now.
Over the past few weeks politicians of all colours have been falling over themselves to make announcements and policy decisions to help ‘rebalance Britain’ and invest in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Campaign for Better Transport has been banging the drum for investment in northern transport infrastructure for many years and most recently we have focusing on rail investment through our Right Track North Campaign.
Our campaigning is now paying off with three party leaders making key transport announcement over the past few weeks. Today the Prime Minister announced that the decrepit pacer trains will definitely be replaced as part of the new Northern Rail Franchise renewal. Yesterday Deputy PM Nick Clegg announced a ‘Northern Futures’ Project which will seemuch needed electrification of the Sheffield/Leeds to Manchester lines, and the week before Ed Miliband committed to creating ‘London style’ bus services across Britain.
All three of these pledges are important but the announcement on replacing pacer trains is one that is particularly pleasing. Built by British Rail in the 1980s as a short-term bargain basement train to keep local lines open, they are still the mainstay of many lines in the North, including some heavily used commuter services. While passsenger numbers and expectations (and ticket prices) have changed out of all recognition over the last 30 years, Pacers are still running. Despite some upgrades, Pacers are badly outdated and uncomfortable. Significant numbers still have old-fashioned bench seating and their peculiar inward-opening doors have steps, making access difficult, especially for those with reduced mobility.
The next task is to ensure that the financial burden of funding these much needed new trains is not shouldered by already hard pressed rail users, but rather by a long term plan of investment that will create passenger growth.
Northern England needs a coherent strategy for rail investment and improvements including much needed simplification of the currently baffling fares structure. We would like to see a much simpler and fairer zonal pricing structure for the North and you will hear much more about this over the next few weeks. For now though we must celebrate the successes we have achieved and ensure that these are not just words spoken six months away from a General Election but are promises which are met with actions.