Labour has refused to rule out higher rail fares or keeping decrepit trains, in a bleak message for the North’s passengers.
Mary Creagh, the party’s transport spokeswoman, said the Government’s controversial plans for the new Northern Rail franchise may be impossible to reverse – even if it wins the general election.
Ministers claim local fares are higher in the South and have put forward proposals to wipe out those differences by hiking ticket prices on cheaper Northern routes.
Asked if Labour opposed that move, Ms Creagh said:
“That’s not a fair question without civil service advice – that’s what ministers are doing on the basis of advice.”
She added that halting that process was “not impossible”, particularly if Labour plans to devolve decision-making to local transport authorities went ahead.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has also sparked anger by planning to “modernise” the 30-year-old ‘Pacer’ trains – condemned as “cattle trucks” – despite an earlier vow to replace them.
But Ms Creagh said it would take around seven years to bring in different trains – which must be ‘cascaded’ from other lines, where electrification schemes are in doubt.
“I don’t want to upgrade the Pacers – I’m not sure you can. They’re not disability compliant.
“However, they have the enormous advantage that they exist – unlike better trains for the future that don’t exist yet.”
Ms Creagh was speaking after the launch of the Right Lines campaign, to end decades of underinvestment in rail in the region.
The crucial date looms in December, when specifications for the new franchises – potentially including fare hikes and retaining the Pacers – are published.
The North’s transport leaders have warned that hoped-for improvements will be “locked out for seven to nine years” unless their message is heard by then.
For example, an annual season ticket for the 13.5 mile journey between Darlington and Middlesbrough is £928 – but Bath to Bristol, a similar distance, costs £1,504.
But Northern transport bosses say the difference is justified because of lower incomes in the region, as well as by the older trains passengers must use.
Ms Creagh insisted Labour had a strong plan for the railways, which would end the damaging fragmentation of the privatised system.
It will create a rail authority – a “single guiding mind to plan investment and services” – bringing Network Rail together with passenger organisations.
The new body would contract routes, coordinate services and oversee stations, fares and ticketing, with a state-owned company bidding to run rail lines.
Source – Northern Echo, 17 Oct 2014