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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Liam Thorp

Hellish train journeys show why 'Levelling Up' is still miles away

Yesterday the Conference of the North was held in Manchester, the biggest annual gathering of northern politicians and leaders in the calendar.

It seemed horribly appropriate that on the day the north came together to shout with one increasingly weary voice about the neglect it continues to suffer at the hands of central government, that those of us travelling across the region were hit by travel chaos and woe.

As I woke up and checked my travel options for the fairly short 30 mile journey from Liverpool to central Manchester I was met with a familiar sight. Before 8am TransPennine Express (TPE), one of the main train operators in the north had already cancelled more than 50 services.

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This might seem a bit mad to the uninitiated, but it is just a normal day amid the chaos of public transport in the north. As The Guardian's Northern Editor Helen Pidd - who has covered this issue extensively - revealed yesterday, on six days in January TPE has cancelled more than 30% of services, with some days reaching as high as 45% of scrapped trains.

It is this shocking situation that has led Northern Mayors to call for TPE to be brought back under public control, a message repeated robustly at yesterday's conference. Speaking at the conference Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said: "There is one thing that is bringing a lot of negativity to the North at the moment, dragging down our economies and actually dragging down people's lives and their wellbeing. That is the failing train services across the North of England. There has to come a point where you say you can't accept this anymore. We're at that point."

And he's right. I was able to find another train to get to Manchester just in time for the conference, but it was far from ideal and still cost me £22 for a return ticket. This already felt pricey but would become extortionate considering what I faced on the return leg.

Once I made it to the conference I was in place to hear the government's Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove promise to bring the "spirit of Thatcherism" to the north of England, not an image most people this side of the M62 would ever want to see.

Northern leaders had hoped to meet with Mr Gove to discuss the rail mess and their desire to strip TPE of its franchise but aside from a brief meeting with Mr Burnham the Secretary of State did not meet with the other northern leaders as he quickly departed the conference and the north.

It perhaps doesn't say a great deal for the Conservatives' commitment to so-called Levelling Up that Mr Gove's fleeting appearance came alongside no shows from Levelling Up minister Dehenna Davison and the only Tory northern mayor Ben Houchen. The event concluded with a familiar feeling that the North's growing unrest is still not being taken seriously by Whitehall.

Echo reporter Liam Thorp was stuck on an uncomfortably packed train from Manchester to Liverpool (Liverpool Echo)

If my day had started with a fairly vivid example of just how bad things have got when it comes to train travel in the north, it became visceral on the return journey.

Admittedly this was a rush hour Northern service so I was expecting it to be fairly busy, but as you can see from the images attached that description doesn't quite cover it.

For the first 25 minutes of the journey I and those around me were wedged into position, completely unable to move. Things declined more and more as desperate passengers joined the scrum at subsequent stops. I exchanged a few knowing glances with those who had been forcibly stuck just inches from my face (sorry to them) - at this point all we could really do was laugh at the ludicrous situation.

I shared the images of my cattle-truck train home on twitter and asked 'why do we have to put up with this in the north?'. Many shared my frustrations, while a few Londoners told me this was something they experience on the Tube each day.

At this point I had to respond, there is simply no comparison between London's efficient, subsidised and rightly heralded public transport network and what we are dealing with up north. If a tube train is particularly busy you can step off and catch another two minutes later - or two minutes after that and so on. If I had decided this unholy mess was too much to hack then I would probably have had to wait 45 minutes to an hour for another one to show up - and these days there are no guarantees that it would.

I'm fortunate that I don't have to make the commute between Liverpool and Manchester each day but many of those commenting on my post do and the saddest thing was to hear how many have now opted to drive rather than take the train because of the scenes I encountered. We are actively forcing people back into their cars with the shoddy service on offer up north and that is frankly a disgrace in the current climate (pun very much intended).

Northern leaders are right when they say enough is enough, but I remains sceptical that anyone in the corridors of London power really cares.

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