Transport Secretary promises end of troubled Northern rail franchise as fares rise by 2.7 per cent

Struggling rail operator Northern looks set to be heading for the end of the line after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed action will be taken over continuing cancellations, delays and overcrowded trains.

By Tim Gavell
Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 10:36 am
Updated Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 11:35 am

His announcement came on the day rail fares across the country rose by an average of 2.7 per cent, despite a year of complaints across many franchises in nearly all parts of the country.

The chaotic introduction of new timetables in May 2018, hit by a delay in Network Rail’s electrification projects across the North, saw up to 310 Northern trains a day cancelled, and punctuality and reliability problems continue to blight the network.

Office of Rail and Road figures show just 55.6 per cent of Northern trains arrived at stations within one minute of the timetable in the 12 months to December 7, compared with the average across Britain of 65.3 per cent.

Grant Shapps

German-based Arriva holds the Northern franchise, which is due to run until March 2025.

Speaking to the BBC and the Press Association on Thursday, January 2, Grant Shapps said the fare rises were needed to boost investment in a rail system that had been underfunded for decades.

He described services on Northern’s routes as “really bad” and claimed passengers have “had a nightmare on that line” since 2016.

Asked if Northern will be stripped of its franchise, he replied: “The simple answer to the question is yes, it is going to be brought to an end.

Northern Train

“It’s partially a legal process but frustrated commuters will not have to wait long.”

The Department for Transport subsequently issued a statement to clarify saying: "As the Secretary of State said, he has started a process which would either strip Northern of its franchise or to issue a short-term contract to them.

“We are taking action to ensure passengers in the North get a better service and we will provide an update in due course.”

The rail services across Lancashire have come under severe and increasing criticism over the past two years.

In November 2017 work finally started on the line between Preston and Blackpool as part of the electrification project right across the North. The line was shut for 18 weeks with bus replacements brought in.

The work across the North was delayed after contractor Balfour Beatty pulled out.

In May 2018 the delays had a knock-on effect when the annual May timetable change came into force when Northern and Transpennine Express had wanted to bring in hundreds of new services.

In just two weeks between May 17-31 a total of 381 trains from Blackpool North were cancelled, 199 part-cancelled and 15 ran with reduced carriages.

At the start of June an emergency reduced timetable had to be introduced to cut the chaos. This removed more than 160 train services from the schedule.

The services did not get much better and in December 2018, more chaos as the annual winter timetable change was introduced.

Northern got a boost as its new electric and diesel trains started to come on track as promised but even that hit problems as Spanish builder CAF hit trouble delivering the £500m fleet on time, meaning Pacer trains had to be kept in service.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham led calls for the Government to take back control of services across the North in the way it had with the troubled East Coast franchise in June 2018.

In October the DfT said it was 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.

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.

“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.”