Illustration by John Watson

Tracy Brabin: Labour will invest in better trains because ‘it has to’

The actor-turned-mayor of West Yorkshire on facing transport disruption ‘most days’—and campaigning to fix it
September 6, 2023

Remarkably, Tracy Brabin’s 8.05am train from the Pennine mill town of Slaithwaite (pronounced “Slough-wit”) is on time, and the mayor of West Yorkshire should be at her Leeds desk in half an hour.

It’s such a brief ride that we decide to stand. Yet travelling with her the previous day had been impossible due to a strike. And it’s not just strikes: we’d checked our apps late at night to be warned there was no guarantee about today’s service, either. 

For most of the past 18 months, Brabin has faced disruption “most days”, “coming one way or the other”. This is why, in England’s industrial belt, the words “TransPennine Express” have curdled into a curse. 

Responsible for transport, though with few powers over rail, the bright-eyed Brabin has voters contacting her to say that they’re moving or getting divorced due to train stress. In London, there’s normally a fallback Overground line: not here. The mayor sometimes ends up in a hotel near her office because she can’t get home: “It’s cheaper than a taxi,” she sighs.

Fortunately, and despite today’s chest infection, she’s irrepressibly cheery. Brabin found fame a generation ago as Tricia Armstrong: address, Number One Coronation Street. As a soap star she was “constantly” stopped in the street. She moved to writing TV— “Heartbeat, Hollyoaks, Shameless”—but still had a famous face, which she would lend to causes she backed, including the Labour party. 

She stayed close to her hometown of Batley, which in 2015 saw the election of an “amazing” young Labour MP who had—some years after Brabin—attended the same school. Her name was Jo Cox. The pair became friends, campaigning to save libraries, until Cox was assassinated in 2016. At Cox’s funeral her stunned friends asked Brabin: “Do you want to be an MP?”

After four years of “fake it till you make it” in Westminster, including a spell on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench (a time she’s now no keener to dwell on than is Keir Starmer), Brabin broke into the all-boys club of metro mayors. There are a few real levers of power to pull, but as has often been said of the US presidency, what’s most important is the pulpit and the power to persuade. Currently, she’s campaigning frenetically with Andy Burnham and other mayors to halt sweeping ticket-office closures, and has high hopes for a legal challenge. 

Somewhere around Dewsbury, our enthusiastic conductor, Mark, brushes by: “Nice to meet you… thank you for everything you’ve done to get this under public ownership.” It begins to feel staged, as he hails Labour’s win in the Selby byelection and bemoans the “495 votes” the party had fallen short by at the Uxbridge by-election. But once Mark concedes that “nothing much” has improved since the government’s reluctant nationalisation of the line in May, I realise he must be a genuine fan. 

The daughter of an intermittently workless dad, and a “free school meal girl” growing up, Brabin, I assumed, would be pulling her hair out at Starmer’s stark decision to keep the Tories’ poverty-promoting two-child welfare limit, something she’d previously campaigned against. But she’s sanguine: the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, is “compassionate”, so all will be fixed when money allows. 

Closer to home, won’t Labour’s fiscal flagellation curtail investment in better trains? No. A Labour government will find the money because “it has to”. HS2 is imperative, though resuscitating its lost Leeds leg may take a little time. What can’t wait is “Northern Powerhouse Rail… a new line between Manchester and Leeds, with a through station in Bradford,” a city that sorely needs the boost.

“Have a good day, love,” she bids me as we reach her office. Returning to Slaithwaite, normal service returns, with a 20-minute delay and then a forced change at Huddersfield. It’s well over an hour until I’m back at my car.