Posted 29th January 2020 | 7 Comments

Northern franchise to be terminated by DfT

TRANSPORT SECRETARY Grant Shapps has decided to terminate Arriva's Northern franchise. The operation will be transferred to the DfT's Operator of Last Resort on 1 March.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘This is a new beginning for Northern, but it is only a beginning.

‘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. 

‘We know overcrowding is a problem. To ensure we are deploying the trains in the right place to meet demand, we will be trialing new technology to identify crowding pinch points. We will also be extending platforms at 30 stations on the Northern network to allow for longer trains.

‘We will also be making sure that every journey is made on a train fit for passengers: all Northern's trains will be deep-cleaned and we will review the cleaning pattern to make sure the first and last passengers travel on trains in the same condition.

‘Over many months we have seen completely unacceptable numbers of cancellations on Sundays, affecting town centres, businesses, families and community groups. We understand this and I have therefore asked the public-sector operator to prioritise building on the recent agreement with ASLEF to improve the reliability of Sunday services and significantly reduce the number of cancellations.

‘Beyond this, I have asked Robin Gisby and Richard George, who lead the public-sector operator, to prepare a plan in their first 100 days, to make sure we leave no stone unturned in improving this franchise for passengers.’

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

Arriva UK managing director Chris Burchell said: ‘We had a clear vision for the Northern franchise that would better connect the cities of the North with more frequent, reliable and modern services and unlock economic growth. It was clear however that, largely because of external factors, the franchise plan had become undeliverable.  A new plan is needed that will secure the future for Northern train services.  As such, we understand Government’s decision today.’

Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer has called for the delayed Williams Review to be published without further delay: ‘Passengers in the north deserve better than the service they have received from the different parts of the railway. Plans to deliver real improvements were hamstrung by a flawed industry structure, with different parts working to different targets and no one body clearly in charge and accountable to passengers,’ he said.

He continued: ‘The industry’s proposals to the forthcoming government review into rail set out a radical alternative to the status quo. This review must be published urgently.’

The decision has been welcomed by rail unions. RMT general secretary Mick Cash 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.’

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 to 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.’

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan agreed with his colleagues, saying: ‘We welcome today's decision, because we want the railway in public ownership, but let's do it properly, with a clear, long-term, strategic vision, not just as a short-term response to the years of franchised failure.

‘There won't be an immediate improvement because many of the systemic failures at Northern – the late delivery of new rolling stock, the cancellation by the Conservative government of infrastructure upgrades, trying to run a service with too few drivers – cannot be remedied overnight.

‘Northern needs investment – the north of England has had much less than the south – and it won't be a success until significant sums are invested in modernising its 19th century infrastructure.’

Transport Focus director David Sidebottom 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.’

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • G. A.R. Goyle, SOUTHPORT

    This is obviously not going to be a quick fix !!
    Northern Rail always make excuses about "delayed infrastructure projects", "factors outside our control" etc etc. but the one thing they never mention is the one thing that they do have control over and that is the chronic shortage of drivers. The number of times that my train has been cancelled or heavily delayed in the past 12 months or so due to "no driver" has happened so often that I have lost count. My wife and I were turfed off 3 different trains in one evening at Wigan Wallgate recently due to "no driver or awaiting driver". As a result we got home 2 hours later than planned !!
    No TOC should ever be short of drivers. The fact Northern are short of drivers and yet fail to recruit any beggars belief !!
    One of the first things the new operator will need to do is recruit new drivers and a lot of them. The time it takes to train them is why this franchise's problem won't be a quick fix !!

  • Neil Palmer, Waterloo

    Arriva aren't blameless, but for the government to ride in like they're some sort of saviour is a bit rich considering they are equally, if not more, responsible for the problems caused by themselves (including DfT and Nationalised Network Rail). Completing the Ordsall Chord bringing more trains into the two through platforms at Piccadilly, without authorising the absolutely essential four-tracking from Oxford Road to Piccadilly along with the two additional through platforms at Piccadilly is like cramming a doughnut covered in bacon down the throat of someone suffering a heart attack. That stretch of track is probably the most important and busy chokepoint on Northern's entire network and is responsible for a huge amount of delay minutes on many routes.

    The government is its own worst enemy. On the Castlefield corridor as usual they promise something then don't deliver. They can't get their finger out and approve anything on time, as we also see from the never ending indecision over HS2 (contributing to the increased cost as all suppliers see the obvious risk of committing resources to something they can't rely on).

  • Roger Capel, Sheffield & Glossop

    East of the Pennines, passengers with memories of the late & totally unlamented Arriva Northern were a bit bewildered to see that Arriva not only got a second chance but got the enlarged network with the ex-First North Western part added in the first place!.

    Lurking in the background, though, is a cash strapped Deutsche Bahn who've been quite open about wanting to offload Arriva. How to work wonders for staff morale! Take a ride on a tired out looking AXC Voyager (is it really 20 years since I worked on those at Horbury? That means a "mid-life refresh" is 5 years overdue) & you really get the impression of a company trying not to spend.

  • Steven Foster, Morecambe

    The problems Northern have been attempting to work round and with will not go away.The Office of Last Resort or a contractor appointed to a management contract will still have to grapple with these.
    The Government might attempt to receive the perceived praise for ending the franchise.What they should be doing is explaining to the public that these problems will still exist and need grappling with.Also the Government should come clean about the fact that they have sat on a Transport and Works Order that would give the go ahead for work on Castlefields corridor, which had they been carried out, might have assisted Northern (and TPE).

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    When let Arriva's prospectus promised a step change in rail travel experienced by the communities it served. In practice Arriva will be remembered for the collapse in operational performance & customer confidence that has happened during the last two years.

    Yes infrastructure upgrades have been delayed, deferred, paused or postponed. NR certainly struggled with completing NW electrification not least by the withdrawal or failure of contractors like Balfour Beatty and Carillion. Government through the DfT certainly didn't help be descoping, pausing, deferring or plain cancelling crucial upgrade projects promised when the contract was let. The infrastructure is ageing and no longer fit for the demands placed on it.

    Arriva however came across as under prepared, inflexible & under resourced in order to adapt to the challenges it faced in order to maintain a reliable service.

    Add to that the toxic industrial relations that all recent franchise holders have faced as proxy for government in updating working practices and loss of staff confidence can be added to the mix.

    The immediate challenge for the Operator of Last Resort is to restore operational performance. To be fair to Arriva as the new train fleet has become available & is bedding in a step up in service quality should be assured. The complete withdrawal of the pacer units will soon be a reality.
    The availability of physical resources is only part of the equation. The new management need to ensure as a matter of urgency that adequate traincrew & station staff are available and their conditions of service are updated to reflect the flexible operational environment of the 21st century.

  • Jez Milton, Manchester

    A predictable kneejerk response to media and public pressure.

    The main problems will remain unresolved: Network Rail couldn't deliver a pizza, let alone rail upgrades. And RMT will fight to have brand new trains despatched by guards as per the 1930s, instead of having ontrain staff visible to passengers.

    At least the union sabotage will be called off, so in the short term, passengers should see fewer delays.

  • Pär Boman, Stockholm, Sweden

    "we will review the cleaning pattern to make sure the first and last passengers travel on trains in the same condition."

    If we take that literally they would have to clean it after each stop on a wet and muddy day. Good cleaning is nice but promising things that are impossible is not helpful.