Wednesday 29 January 2020 1:54 pm

Struggling Northern Rail franchise nationalised and renamed Northern Trains

Northern Rail is to be nationalised, five years before the franchise was set to end, after months of delays, cancellations and poor financial performance.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps will terminate the existing franchise for Northern and install the state’s Operator of Last Resort on 1 March as filings for a new state-run replacement – Northern Trains – emerged on Companies House.

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.”

Earlier this month, Shapps said the franchise was on course for a full-scale financial collapse within months. As a result, he will strip operator Arriva of the contract.

Arriva, which is part of Germany’s state-run transport giant Deutsche Bahn, won the nine-year contract in 2016. It is thought to have poured about £300m into trying to improve the franchise.

But Northern Rail has been plagued by delays, cancellations and strikes. Just 82 per cent of trains currently arrive on time, down from 91 per cent two years ago.

Arriva sought to play down how much it was to blame today. Managing director Chris Burchell said the issues had been “largely because of external factors”.

“The scale of the challenges we faced outside of our direct control were unprecedented, particularly around delayed or cancelled infrastructure projects and prolonged strike action.

“We recognise however that overall service improvements have not come quickly enough, and passengers deserve better. For that, we wholeheartedly apologise.

The network runs from Newcastle to Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester and Stoke. It serves more than 100m passengers a year.

Arriva is the second operator to be stripped of a UK rail franchise in less than two years.

Chris Grayling, Shapps’ predecessor, took the East Coast mainline back from Virgin and Stagecoach in June 2018.

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Railways need ‘long-term vision’

Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, said: “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.”

Meanwhile, Yougov said that in a recent poll 51 per cent of people said they supported Northern being brought back under state control.

Only 12 per cent of people opposed the decision, the pollster added.

Yesterday, it emerged that passenger satisfaction with Northern Rail was at an all-time low, according to the National Rail passenger survey.

Passengers ‘deserve better’

David Sidebottom, director at watchdog Transport Focus, said: “After years of misery Northern passengers just want a reliable service … 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.

Meanwhile, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, set up by former chancellor George Osborne, said the move was “dealing with the symptoms, but not necessarily the root causes of the problems on our railways”.

It added that Shapps’ decision to make the announcement via a written statement rather than in Parliament “is frankly unacceptable”.

The announcement comes as the Department for Transport prepares to rip up the current franchising system through a long-awaited review into Britain’s railways.

The reforms, written up by former British Airways boss Keith Williams, are set to be announced next month.

They are expected to hand the state a significant amount more control in the day-to-day running of the railways than it currently has.

Main image credit: Network Rail