Barnsley doesn’t have the fondest memories of the 1980s – the Miner’s Strike, a decade of Thatcherism, mass unemployment and the impact this had on our local communities. It looked as though another relic of the 1980s – Northern Rail’s pacer trains – would also be consigned to the dustbin of history to the relief of Barnsley commuters, myself included. These trains, which are essentially old-fashioned buses on rails travelling at average speeds of 35mph, should have been put in a transport museum years ago. Instead, for those of us who regularly travel by train between Barnsley, Sheffield and Leeds, they are a regular feature on our railways. The recent admission by Northern Rail that pacers would continue to be used well into 2020 is simply not good enough. Barnsley’s commuters are sick and tired of being treated like second-class citizens.
As we know only too well, this is not the case across the country. Commuters in affluent areas in the South East and in London do not have to put up with the same problems that Northern commuters deal with on a daily basis. Whilst London and the South East get investment in Crossrail; we are left with yet further delays to essential upgrades and improvements. The inequalities when it comes to transport spending underline the North/South divide in the country: for every £1 that is spent in Yorkshire and the Humber of transport infrastructure; London and the South East get £3.40. The result is that persistent underfunding of this kind has created a country of regional haves and have-nots. Only a sustained programme of investment in infrastructure, transport, skills and education can start to bridge that divide.
That’s what my work as Mayor is all about. It’s why I’ve taken personal responsibility for improving transport here in South Yorkshire and why we’re starting to see some progress. I’ve agreed my ambitious and achievable Rail Plan that will modernise our railways and potentially lead to transformative regeneration opportunities for Barnsley through the new Northern Powerhouse Rail Parkway station. I’ve launched my nationally significant review of local bus services to make sure that buses can better serve our local communities. I’ve appointed our first Active Travel Commissioner to enable more people to walk, cycle and run wherever they are able to do so. And I’ve been working hard, alongside the Department for Transport and Transport for the North, to get Northern Rail to deliver on their promises and address the issue of poor services that the travelling public in the North of England have had to endure for far too long.
However, the admission by Northern Rail of delays and unfulfilled promises are a further kick in the teeth for all of us. In spite of our best efforts at a local, regional and national level, you can’t help but feel that you are working with both hands tied behind your back. That is why I have been forced to challenge Northern Rail in public in recent days – to make it clear that I will not tolerate shoddy services for the people I represent. Northern need to get on with the job of upgrading their trains, improving their services and delivering value for money for passengers – and hold serious discussions about compensating passengers for the already excessive delays. There are growing calls, all around the North, for Northern to be stripped of their franchise. Without evidence of a real commitment to turning things around, the volume of those calls will only continue to rise.
This article was originally published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 18 October 2019