Failed train operator Northern stripped of its franchise

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Failed train operator Northern – the biggest in the north west – was stripped of its franchise this afternoon.

The announcement by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps that the network is to be brought under public control from 1st March means that it will, in effect, be nationalised.

Mr Shapps, who had indicated that Northern would be either taken into public ownership or offered a short-term contract, said passengers had lost trust in the company.

Sacking Northern was demanded by Transport for the North and Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham ahead of the decision.

Mr Burnham had told Talk Radio just hours before Mr Shapps acted, that he hoped railways in the north of England would be put into public control to “bring some accountability” to what he said was a “failing railway”.

Mr Burnham said: “We haven’t had a seven-day rail service for pretty much two years, it’s been a six-day service with widespread cancellations on a Sunday – so how can a city region like ours function on that basis? It can’t, can it?

“But it’s more than that – every day I get emails from people stranded on platforms because the train turns ups with two carriages, they can’t get on.

“The list goes on and on, it’s been a catalogue of failure.”

He added that the poor service has not all been down to Northern Rail, blaming the “Victorian infrastructure” as well.

Mr Shapps’ decision followed results of a survey which revealed that Northern suffered the worst customer satisfaction rate of any train operating company in the UK.

Only 72 per cent of passengers said they were satisfied with Northern’s performance during autumn according to the survey of 28,000 by watchdog Transport Focus.

The woeful score was the lowest in 20 years and followed a catalogue of disruption caused by cancellations, delays and strikes.

“This is a new beginning for Northern, but it is only a beginning,” said Mr Shapps.

“Northern’s network is huge and complex and some of the things which are wrong are not going to be quick or easy to put right. But I am determined that Northern passengers see real and tangible improvements across the network as soon as possible.

“The railways were invented in the North. Last year the Prime Minister promised that we would give the railway back to the places it was born, giving more power over services, fares, and stations to local leaders.

“Today marks the first small step towards the North taking back control of its railways and its people taking back control of their travelling lives.

“There will be no more leaving behind. This Government is committed to levelling-up.”

Northern has been run by Arriva – part of the German state-owned Deutsche Bahn – since 2016, when it replaced a consortium of Serco and Abellio after pledging to upgrade the network with a fleet of new rolling stock, replacing its old-fashioned “Pacer” trains widely detested by passengers. 

The operator’s complex network stretches from Cheshire to Northumberland, covering busy commuter services in and around Manchester, and carries 101m passengers a year on 2,500 daily services.

But Northern has been dogged by delays to infrastructure improvements, most notably the electrification of the important Manchester to Leeds route, and –  crucially – by the failure by state-owned Network Rail to tackle the notorious “bottleneck” along the Castlefield Corridor and through Oxford Road and Piccadilly stations. 

The long-running dispute with unions over the single manning of trains has also taken its toll, with a series of widespread weekend service cancellations.

Chris Burchell, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains, said he accepted Northern network services were “not yet good enough”.

“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.”

Arriva was due to run the franchise until 2025.

The Department for Transport first intervened in July 2018 deeming frequent weekend cancellations due to insufficient staff as “unacceptable”.

The government also expressed concern over declining passenger numbers despite increasing services by approximately per cent since the start of the franchise in 2016 subsidies soaring from £286 million to £404 million following the May 2018 timetable debacle.

Arriva countered by citing Network Rail’s timetabling failures and the government’s unwillingness to invest in infrastructure, such as two new ‘through’ platforms at Manchester Piccadilly to address congestion through the Castlefield corridor and to enable the planned increase in services over the course of the franchise.

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