Government to take control over troubled Northern rail franchise

After years of cancelled and late Northern trains, the Government has effectively re-nationalised the firm's service in the north.

Wednesday, 29th January 2020, 1:32 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th January 2020, 5:47 pm

The announcement was made by transport secretary Grant Shapps in a written statement to Parliament, the day after his visit to Poulton to look into the possibility of re-opening the rail connection to Fleetwood.

He confirmed that the operator Arriva Rail North – which runs services across the North including from Preston, Blackpool, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York, as well as Cumbria - would have its franchise brought into public ownership from March 1.

The franchise hit major problems in 2018 when the over-run of the electrification and signalling upgrades in the North West, carried out by Network Rail, led to chaos when the annual May timetable changes were introduced. An emergency timetable with reduced services had to be brought in but delays and cancellations continued.

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Northern is set to have its train operating franchise brought under Government control

The firm, which took over in 2016, has also been hit by a shortage of drivers on Sundays and late delivery of its new trains from a manufacturer in Spain which led to the firm having to use the outdated Pacer trains longer.

German-based Arriva was due to run Northern until March 2025.

It is the second time the Government was forced to take over a franchise. It brought in an operator of last resort to run the East Coast line in June 2018, now run as LNER after Virgin Trains East Coast ran into similar trouble.

In a written statement to Parliament, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he wanted "real and tangible" improvements for passengers on Northern's routes.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

He said: "I am announcing today that from 1 March the Northern Rail franchise will be taken into public ownership and the Government will begin operating services through the public-sector operator - the so-called operator of last resort.

"The public-sector operator is a company entirely owned by my department and run by experienced railway managers.

"It already owns and oversee another franchise, East Coast, which it brands as London North Eastern Railway. Passenger satisfaction has risen in the nineteen months it has been operating the service.

"This is a new beginning for Northern, but it is only a beginning. Northern's network is huge and complex, some of the things which are wrong are not going to be quick or easy to put right.

"Nonetheless, I am determined that Northern passengers see real and tangible improvements across the network as soon as possible.

"Today's announcement will inevitably raise questions about the future of rail privatisation. Over the past twenty years privatisation has reversed over two decades of declining passenger numbers and passenger journeys have almost doubled to nearly two billion.

"However, it is clear that the current model is now struggling to deliver. Across the country a number of franchises are failing to provide the reliable services that passengers require.

"We know change is needed, and it is coming. The Williams Review is looking at reforms across the railway to ensure customers are at the heart of the system."

The news has brought a mixed reaction in the region.

Stephen Brookes, the Blackpool-based Rail Sector Champion for the Minister for Disabled People said: "It is important that the change of the operation of Northern Rail to the public domain on March first, does not have a negative impact on passengers, particularly disabled people.

"I will continue to work with the management responsible for access to ensure that the ongoing work is maintained and will hope that we see a better outcomes for us all."

Henri Murison, Northern Powerhouse Partnership Director said: "In stripping Northern of their franchise in favour of a return to public ownership under the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort, the Transport Secretary is dealing with the symptoms, but not necessarily the root causes of the problems on our railways, which relate to infrastructure – and his absence from the House of Commons to make a statement in person and answer questions today is frankly unacceptable and will not have gone unnoticed amongst many Northern business and civic leaders.

“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, as well as get started with the £3 billion long awaited Trans Pennine Route Upgrade which is essential."

David Sidebottom, director at the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “After years of misery Northern passengers just want a reliable service. In our latest survey Northern passenger satisfaction is at an all-time low. They deserve better.

“Passengers need to hear when services will get back on track. Government must now provide a plan, including much needed investment in infrastructure, to enable the next operator and Network Rail to improve performance and tackle overcrowding.

“The rail industry must listen to passengers and communicate its plan to improve services and rebuild trust.”

Barry White, chief executive of Transport for the North, said: “Our hard-pressed passengers have been calling for action for some time – as have our Members. Now, at last, we have the chance of a fresh start.

“There may be some changes but we will continue to be a champion for the North’s passengers and expect to be fully involved as things evolve. We will monitor and hold the OLR very closely to account.”

TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes said: “I’m glad that at last Grant Shapps has agreed with our union that the Northern franchise has run out of rail. The only question is – what took him and this Tory government so long at act?

“It was clear even before the timetabling chaos across the North of England in 2018 that Northern was a basket case. Since then things have gone backwards, cancellations remain commonplace, with few services running on time and of late we’ve seen another spate of timetabling problems.

“It’s time the government understood that the franchising of our railways – while stuffing the mouths of shareholders with gold - has completely failed."

Mick Cash, General Secretary of Britain's largest rail union RMT, said: “Northern has become a signal for everything that is wrong on Britain's broken, privatised railways and the fact that the Government have now been forced to take this action today will open the floodgates towards wholesale public ownership of our railways as other franchises fall like dominoes or simply choose to cut and run in the face of the inevitable.

“The return of Northern to the public domain, joining the East Coast Main Line, should not be seen as a short term fix and a holding operation pending another punt on another bunch of private speculators. This has to be a permanent move followed up with the investment and planning needed to deliver the rail services that passengers deserve after years of privatised chaos."