#Northernfail – It’s not just about oversight: it’s a question of ownership.

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With the recently coined ‘northernfail’ hashtag now trending on Twitter, social media is awash with real time reminders of the unacceptable levels of service being provided by the Northern Rail franchise.

Anyone who’s used the service recently, or has talked to colleagues or friends who have, will immediately see why it’s been branded as a fiasco. Serious delays and cancellations are now ubiquitous; disruption, upset and misery are the everyday reality for users of this service.

As some see it, Northern’s failings stem from poor forward planning and a lack of investment in staff and training.  But whilst this is clearly an issue, it fails to address the underlying cause behind Northern’s failure.

Part the Arriva group, Northern is owned by a multinational transport company described as one of the leading providers of passenger transport in Europe. What is more, Arriva is part of Deutsche Bahn – the second largest transportation company in the world.

And herein lies the root of the problem: our rail fares aren’t necessarily going back into the system to fund improvement – staff, training and wider investment. Instead, wealth is being extracted out of the system in the form of shareholder dividends and excess pay, irrespective of how the company is performing. To make matters worse, rail passengers frequently have no choice but to use Northern Rail. On many routes it is the only service operator, which means there is no competition to incentivise the company to up its game. This is unacceptable.

So how do we solve this..?

Much of the political response has focused on calls for greater accountability and for more devolution of power. In response, Transport for the North have commissioned a review which will be expected to make far reaching recommendations on how Northern can be better held to account by local people. There have also been calls for more devolved budgets and for a Northern Crossrail to provide more money for rail infrastructure and address underfunding.

“What we really need is a more radical shift in public policy: in short, regional public ownership of our railways.”

But although these things are important, they fail to tackle the root cause outlined above. Yes more funding is needed, but it’s not just about more money. Yes we need devolution of power, but it’s not just about more local over sight and accountability. What we really need is a more radical shift in public policy: in short, regional public ownership of our railways. Rather than allowing wealth to be extracted, this would guarantee that profits could be reinvested in the system. Rather than contracts being obscured from public view, contracts would be fully public so that we can see the terms and hold operators to account.

With the majority of Britons in support of the nationalisation of our railways, the call for public ownership is now a mainstream view. Moving forward, the debate needs to focus on what form public ownership should take. With the appetite for a new municipalism growing in areas up and down the country, the case for city regions and local authorities stepping in to rebuild the link between service, accountability, community and local democracy is strong.

There are of course a number of options for public and community ownership and CLES will shortly be producing a briefing to examine these more fully.