I was hoping for some catharsis on Wednesday. The new secretary of state for transport, Mark Harper, was due in Manchester to deliver a keynote speech, and I was ready for him.Secretary of state, did you pay £369.40 for a peak return on Avanti West Coast this morning? Does that seem a fair price for a journey lasting barely two hours? Did tickets only appear on Trainline a day or two beforehand, with all the cheapest options mysteriously sold out?Did you reserve a seat only to find a train so crowded that it was “declassified”, with all reservations null and void? Did you have to urinate in a Pringles pot because you couldn’t reach the toilets? Was the wifi broken? Was the onboard shop not accepting cards? Did you lie awake worrying whether you would actually be able to get to Manchester at all and end up thinking sod it, I’ll get up at 5am and drive?Alas, Harper was a no-show. Instead of appearing in person at the Great Northern Conference, an annual get-together of the north of England’s business and political leaders, he popped up via video link. He was sad to not be there, he said in his pre-recorded address, but some last-minute government business had come up. He didn’t say what.He insisted Rishi Sunak’s government had made an “unwavering commitment to the north of England”. He didn’t add, as long as ministers like him don’t actually have to go there too often.In his five-minute speech, Harper promised to bring HS2 to Manchester and build Northern Powerhouse Rail across the Pennines in some unspecified constellation (new tunnels? A station in Bradford? No idea). But he made no reference to the dire state of public transport outside London.It was an omission which suggests that, four weeks into his new job, Harper has not been paying attention to the misery being wrought by our privatised rail companies across whole swathes of the country.Here, then, is some background reading for him. A year ago, Jason Wood got his “dream job” as executive director of public programmes and audiences at the British Film Institute, which meant commuting from Manchester to London twice a week. Avanti slashed services this summer amid a driver shortage, saying the move would deliver better reliability. But Wood insists every single commute has been delayed since then. “It is costing me a fortune, ruining my marriage and making my dream job unsustainable,” he said.Another rail user, Rachel Brennan, says she spent £3,000 booking train tickets for delegates at a conference in Birmingham on Monday for Groundswell, the homelessness charity. Volunteers and staff travelled from London, Greater Manchester, Newcastle and Bradford – or at least, they tried to. “Most people had to stand, some got diverted and had to change trains even though we had booked direct,” she said, as she began to do battle with various delay-repay schemes on Wednesday.Others talk of jobs lost, education missed, holidays ruined and mental health shattered by never being able to know if they were going to get to their destination on time.In a letter to Harper on Wednesday, Chris Oglesby, chair of the Manchester Business Sounding Board, said staff at an accountancy firm were curtailing all travel to the north-west and had recently cancelled a client conference for more than 120 businesses in Manchester because of Avanti. “The conference will be rescheduled at a later date but in all likelihood in London,” wrote Oglesby.It is not just Avanti. TransPennine Express, which has the franchise for many east-west services in the north of England, as well as services to Scotland, is still only running 69% of trains on the pre-pandemic timetable, and still cancelled 5.8% of those in the last 12 weeks. Coastal locations seem worst affected; on many mornings key commuter services out of Cleethorpes and Hull are cancelled.If Harper had gone to the conference he would have heard Andy Clarke from Manchester airport say that passengers were starting to fly from alternative hubs because TransPennine cancelled so many airport services.Strikes compound the nightmare. But why shouldn’t rail workers demand fair pay in a cost of living crisis when their employers are able to pay out millions to shareholders despite offering reliably abysmal services?I know numerous people learning to drive or buying a second car so that they do not have to rely on trains to get to work or college – a disastrous development given the climate crisis. There are already 3.1m more private cars registered in Britain than there were 10 years ago, an increase of 11%, with cities outside London seeing the largest growth in car ownership.Is that levelling up? I’d have liked to ask Dehenna Davison, the levelling up minister, who was also supposed to be speaking at the Great Northern Conference. But she didn’t turn up either.