Transport Secretary signals end of Northern Rail franchise

Grant Shapps told parliament the under-performing franchise could be taken into public ownership by the end of the month

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Eight months after Liverpool and Manchester’s metro mayors called for the government to take control of Northern Rail, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced that the franchise will be discontinued in a matter of months. Either a fresh short-term contract or nationalisation were on the horizon, he said.           

Shapps told the Commons he would decide which option to take by the end of January, and said that passengers in the North “have had to put up with unacceptable services for too long”.

Northern Rail saw a high proportion – 6.2 per cent – of its services cancelled in the four weeks before 7 December 2019. Office of Rail and Road figures show that 56 per cent of its trains arrived on schedule last year, compared with a national average of 65 per cent. Arriva Rail North, the Northern operator, is a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, a company owned by the German state. In a statement, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains, Chris Burchell, apologised to customers but stated that “many of the issues affecting the franchise… are outside the direct control of Northern.” 

Burchell blamed the cancellation of critical infrastructure projects and “unprecedented” levels of industrial action by staff for disrupting services. Recent strikes have been provoked by the companies’ attempts to introduce so-called "driver only operation", meaning new trains will not have guards. The RMT union, which represents many train drivers and opposes driver only operation, dismissed Shapps’ announcement as “another fudge”. The union called for an end to the franchising system and for railway operators to be taken into public ownership.

The Transport Secretary also announced that long-term decisions on the franchise would “be made in the light of the recommendations of the Williams Rail Review.” At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson told MPs that the government was “looking at the whole way the franchising system operates.” 

Last year, the independent chair of the review, Keith Williams, said his final proposals would deliver a “revolution not evolution” in the way the UK’s rail network was run. At a conference in July, the former British Airways boss said that franchising had “had its day”, calling for more alignment between track management and train operators, and signalling that he would recommend a new arms-length body that took powers away from the Department for Transport and reduced government interference in the running of the railways.            

In October, Williams told the Transport Select Committee that the public body, Transport for London, “could form a model for the new guiding mind”, that would tackle the fragmentation and conflicting interests which characterise the current system. Early signs indicate that the review will recommend a move from the franchising to concessions, in which the government or a public body pay private entities to run services for a fee, but profits, fares and risk are held and determined by the public body.

Jonny Ball is a Special Projects Writer for Spotlight and the New Statesman

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