Business, transport and union chiefs have said that stripping rail operator Northern of its franchise would not provide a long-term fix for the North’s beleagured railways.
The government has said the Northern franchise will only be able to continue “for a number of months”, according to the most recent financial information.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced he is evaluating a proposal from the train operator, which is part of Arriva, on options for continuing its franchise.
But Northern Powerhouse Partnership director Henri Murison said the situation was brought about partly by the basic infrastructure of the railways.
He said: “While there has been a great public clamour for stripping Northern of their franchise, and a belated recognition that TransPennine Express are just as bad, the crying shame is that whoever operates the railways in the North will struggle to run good and reliable services because of the major infrastructure issues in and out of some of our major cities.
“Ministers trumpet the Ordsall Chord as a significant achievement, but in reality – without the associated infrastructure improvements around Manchester Piccadilly, the Castlefield corridor and around Sheffield to name but a few – this should have just been the start of the major improvements we should have seen as part of the Northern Hub.
“While the forthcoming Williams review will rightly address issues with the franchising process in the North, government should urgently act to undertake the engineering works needed to allow operators to run services more effectively, including a number that could be started immediately.
“Otherwise we risk a situation where the North faces years more misery on its rail network – regardless of who runs the trains.”
Mr Shapps told MPs and journalists yesterday: “I will consider whether to award ARN (Arriva Rail North) a short-term management contract or whether to ask the Department of Transport’s own operator of last resort to step in and deliver passenger services.
“Longer-term decisions on the franchise will be made in the light of recommendations of the Williams Rail Review, expected to be published shortly.”
Chris Burchell, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains, also said delays to infrastructure projects had been a major source of problems.
He said: “We accept services on the Northern network are not yet good enough and we sincerely apologise to our customers for our role in that.
“Many of the issues affecting the franchise, however, are outside the direct control of Northern. Assumptions were given when the plan for the franchise was developed that critical infrastructure projects would be delivered to enable growth and support capacity demands.
“Many of these have either been delayed or cancelled. This, along with unprecedented levels of strike action, has had a significant impact on the franchise - both in terms of service and financial performance.
“These challenges will continue to affect services irrespective of who is running them.
“What is needed is a new plan and, in that analysis, we are fully in agreement with Government.
"That is why the Government asked us to prepare a business plan for a shorter ‘Direct Award’.”
In a written statement to Parliament, Mr Shapps added: “On October 16, 2019, I informed the House, through the Transport Committee, that I had issued a request for a proposal to the current Northern franchisee, Arriva Rail North (ARN) and to the Operator of Last Resort as the first phase of securing options for the continuation of passenger services on the Northern franchise.
This was triggered by concern over the financial position of ARN.
“It has now been confirmed to me from the most recent available financial information that the franchise will only be able to continue for a number of months. The proposal I requested from ARN is being evaluated.
“To clarify, the current financial position of the Northern franchise will not impact on the railway’s day-to-day operations.
"Services will continue to run and there will be no impact on staff.”
Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: “This is just another fudge by the Tory Government on Northern but it still proves without a shadow of a doubt that their private franchise model for running our railways is finished.
“The whole privatisation experiment which has reduced our railways to chaos must now be consigned to the dustbin of history.”