Northern rail franchise can only continue ‘for months’ says Transport Secretary

Date published: 09 January 2020

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has today (Thursday 9 January) said that the Northern rail franchise can only continue for ‘a number of months’.

The statement comes after Mr Shapps reaffirmed his intention to strip rail operator Northern of its franchise because of “unacceptable” performance.

Mr Shapps had issued a request for a proposal to the current Northern franchisee, Arriva Rail North and to the Operator of Last Resort, as the first phase of securing options for the continuation of passenger services on the Northern franchise.

This was triggered by concern over the financial position of Arriva Rail North. The existing franchise agreement with Northern was due to run until March 2025.

Between 10 November and 7 December, Northern’s own performance data show that just 40.5% of trains were on time, with 19% being early, and 6.2% being cancelled. The rest, roughly one third, were all late.

In North Manchester for the same time period, this fell to just 33.6% of trains being on time, and almost one in every 10 services being cancelled (9.8%).

In a speech on Thursday, Mr Shapps said: “Passengers in the north have had to put up with unacceptable services for too long. We understand how frustrating this has been for people and we are taking action to make sure that performance improves.

“It has now been confirmed to me from the most recent available financial information that the franchise will only be able to continue for a number of months.

Mr Shapps said that the proposal requested from Arriva Rail North is being evaluated and, following completion, will consider whether to award the firm a short-term management contract, or ask the Operator of Last Resort to step in.

“To clarify, the current financial position of the Northern franchise will not impact on the railway’s day-to-day operations. Services will continue to run and there will be no impact on staff,” Mr Shapps concluded.

A decision is expected to be announced before the end of January 2020.

Responding to the Transport Secretary, Chris Burchell, Arriva’s Managing Director of UK Trains, said: “We accept services on the Northern network are not yet good enough and we sincerely apologise to our customers for our role in that. 

“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.  Many of these have either been delayed or cancelled.  This, along with unprecedented levels of strike action, has had a significant impact on the franchise – both in terms of service and financial performance.

“These challenges will continue to affect services irrespective of who is running them. What is needed is a new plan, and, in that analysis, we are fully in agreement with government. That is why the government asked us to prepare a business plan for a shorter ‘Direct Award’.”

Following the statement today, sub-national transport body, Transport for the North, which brings together the North’s 20 local and combined authorities to speak with one voice, has called on government to show 'full commitment' to rail services for passengers as the franchise is re-assessed.

Strategic Rail Director David Hoggarth said: “This is an important day for rail users across the North of England. They, and we, have been calling for the restoration of reliable rail services across the network for almost two years now.

“Today’s announcement means that, finally, hard-pressed passengers can get the chance of a fresh start. We welcome the clear timeline for a decision to be made by the end of January. We’ve been clear that putting an Operator of Last Resort in place of Northern would be the only way to rebuild trust and confidence, and secure the right outcome for passengers.

“The North’s leaders have said that a Direct Award to Northern, even on a short-term contract basis, is likely to be seen by rail users as a reward for failure.”

The Northern network is operated by Arriva Rail North, which is owned by the German railway, Deutsche Bahn. The region extends from Nottingham to Northumberland and from Stoke-on-Trent to Carlisle.

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