Ministers faced calls to scrap the entire rail franchise system after finally confirming that services run by “failed” operator Northern were being brought under public control.
In a strongly-worded statement Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ended weeks of speculation, announcing that Germany-based Arriva was being stripped of the franchise on March 1 – five years early.
The Government-controlled Operator of Last Resort (OLR) will take over the franchise, under the name Northern Trains.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA transport union, welcomed the decision but urged the Government to accept that “franchising of our railways, while stuffing the mouths of shareholders with gold, has completely failed”.
Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, predicted the action in relation to Northern will “open the floodgates” towards wholesale public ownership of the railways as other franchises will “fall like dominoes or simply choose to cut and run”.
Mr Shapps recently hauled the bosses of TransPennine Express in for an urgent meeting to discuss the company’s poor performance, while West Midlands mayor Andy Street has pledged to call for West Midlands Trains to be stripped of its franchise unless services improve.
In a written statement to Parliament, Mr Shapps acknowledged that his announcement “will inevitably raise questions about the future of rail privatisation”.
He accepted that “change is needed” and claimed the Government-commissioned Rail Review led by former British Airways boss Keith Williams will “ensure customers are at the heart of the system”.
Beginning in April 2016, Northern is Britain’s fifth biggest rail operator based on passenger journeys.
It recorded 106 million passengers in the 12 months to September 2019.
The chaotic introduction of new timetables in May 2018 saw hundreds of Northern trains a day cancelled, and performance has continued to struggle.
Industry figures show just 55% of Northern trains arrived at stations within one minute of the timetable in the 12 months to January 4, compared with the average across Britain of 65%.
Mr Shapps warned that some of the problems faced by the operator, such as “inadequate” infrastructure, will not be “quick and easy” to put right, but he wants passengers to see “real and tangible improvements” as soon as possible.
Among the pledges made by the Transport Secretary include:
– Extended platforms at 30 stations to allow for longer trains
– Deep-clean of all trains
– Northern Trains and Network Rail to draw up a “masterplan” to cut congestion in Manchester
Mr Shapps insisted that the only differences passengers should notice when the OLR takes over is “services gradually starting to get better”.
The OLR already runs trains on the East Coast Main Line under the LNER brand, following the failure of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise.
Chris Burchell, managing director of Arriva’s UK Trains division, said: “Largely because of external factors, the franchise plan had become undeliverable”.
He claimed the company had “helped set strong foundations for future improvement on the network”, but added: “A new plan is needed that will secure the future for Northern train services.
“As such, we understand Government’s decision today.”
Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region respectively, said bringing services under public control was “a victory for passengers” but urged the Government to “commit to investing in much-needed rail infrastructure”.
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