Northern may be about to lose its North West rail franchise

The Department for Transport has confirmed it is looking at potential plans to take control over the Northern rail franchise.

By Tim Gavell
Monday, 23rd December 2019, 10:09 am
Updated Monday, 23rd December 2019, 12:00 pm

Pressure has been mounting on the beleaguered train company with complaints about delays and cancellations of trains, particularly on the Blackpool to Preston line at weekends which has hit passengers’ confidence.

Last week saw yet more issues with mechanical problems and even threats to staff at Manchester Victoria station causing cancellations, just after the star of the new winter timetable.

More trains were cancelled this weekend at Blackpool North. Figures from the Office of Rail and Road show that only 56 per cent of Northern services were on time in the last quarter.

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One of the new trains that Northern has brought to the tracks in the North West

And it is not just Northern coming under fire. Transpennine Express has been criticised for poor service since the winter timetable change.

Train operator performance figures obtained by Northern Powerhouse Partnership found TransPennine Express (TPE) was consistently the worst performing Train Operating Company in the North over the past week in terms of the proportion of trains over 30 mins late or cancelled.

On Thursday, December 19, more than 37 per cent of its services were either more than 30 minutes late or cancelled compared with the next worst operator, Northern at 13.5 per cent. TPE’s Preston to Scotland route was particularly poor with 73.9 per cent of trains on December 19, cancelled or over 30 minutes late.

Transport for the North has called on rail operators Northern and TransPennine Express to ‘step up, and be open and honest’ over the festive period after a damaging week of cancellations, crowding and confusion.

Stephen Brookes

Northern has pointed to factors outside its control, such as infrastructure issues, engineering work overrunning and faults with rolling stock for its problems.

It said it has made more than 1,000 improvements at its stations under its Better Stations programme, which has seen tens of millions invested in improved facilities.

However, the Gazette understands that a decision on the future of the franchise is likely to be taken in the first week of January.

The DfT is considering the options of allowing Northern to continue as a manager rather than franchisee or bringing in its own holding company Directly Operated Railways Ltd to run it.

Andy Burnham

At the weekend The Sunday Times newspaper reported that ministers were considering using the Operator of Last Resort option, which prompted long time Northern critics, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool city region, to ask for confirmation from ministers over whether the report was true.

They said: "All year we have been calling on the Government to get a grip of the chaos on the railways of the North and remove the franchise from Northern.

"Now, just days before Christmas, Government sources have finally responded by briefing a Sunday newspaper that they are belatedly going to take action.

"This is not good enough. Passengers and staff need clarity going into the New Year."

On Friday a DfT spokesman told the Gazette: “As the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps announced at the Transport Select Committee in October, we are developing contingency plans for the replacement of the current franchise with either a new short-term management contract with Northern or the Operator of Last Resort.”

Lancashire-based Stephen Brooks, who is the rail sector champion for disabled people, said cancellations meant disabled passengers could not be certain of getting the travel assistance they needed.

He said: “Northern is in a difficult situation, but my concern is for the people I am in place to support.

"Any changes must not be at the cost of accessibility. While there are a lot of commuters using the trains from Blackpool to Preston and Manchester, there are also a lot of elderly and disabled people.

"Whatever is to come out of all this, they must re-engage with disabled and elderly passengers who have been badly hit by the cancellations and uncertainty."

David Hoggarth, Transport for the North’s Strategic Rail Director, said:

“Already weary passengers are being tested to their limit and Christmas cheer is running short. The services from both operators have been way below par, with so many delays and cancellations.

Urgent recovery and subsequent enforcement action now needs to be taken – including remedial plans to restore resilience and reliability.

“Above all, the operators need to be open and honest about what they can deliver to give the North a rail service it can rely on this Christmas.”

David Brown, managing director at Northern, said: “It’s on record that the Northern franchise has faced several material and unprecedented challenges in the past couple of years, outside the direct control of Northern. The most significant of these is the ongoing, late delivery of major infrastructure upgrades.

“The North West electrification was more than two years late, which meant we could not use electric trains on that route or cascade diesel trains from that route to run more services elsewhere on our network.

“These factors – alongside the damage caused by strike action and lower than expected economic growth – have had a significant effect on the revenue expected in our original franchise business plan agreed with government back in 2015.

“That’s why the Government has asked us to prepare a business plan for a shorter ‘Direct Award’ which will see the completion of our transformation programme.

“Arriva and Northern remain fully committed to delivering the transformation of the North’s railways and improving customers’ experience. We are delivering the biggest transformation of local rail for a generation, with 52 of our 101 new trains in service and driver training taking place on dozens more trains right now.

“These discussions have no impact on rail services for customers. Our job is to continue to provide the best service possible for our customers whilst any discussions are taking place.”