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.’

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