The mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region have called on transport secretary Chris Grayling to strip Northern rail of its franchise following a year of continued disruption.

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham say they are speaking on behalf of the 4.3 million people they represent. They are calling for Northern, which is ultimately owned by German state railway firm Deutsche Bahn, to have its franchise taken away for failing to show it can take action to restore public confidence following last summer’s chaos in the wake of the introduction of a new timetable.

Northern operates some of the lines that were the worst affected by the move in May 2018, which saw passengers suffering huge delays and hundreds of cancellations throughout the summer. Some customers took to social media to complain of the stress caused by the chaos, with some saying it interfered with childcare and work arrangements.

Northern blamed the problems on staff shortages and delays to infrastructure improvements such as line electrification, which is overseen by Network Rail.

After facing criticism for failing to step in during the chaos, Grayling claimed he wasn’t responsible for running the railways but later commissioned former British Airways CEO Keith Williams to head up an inquiry into the UK’s rail industry. The findings of the investigation will inform a series of reform suggestions that could be implemented starting in 2020.

The mayors have listed a number of reasons for action to be taken, including:

  • Failure to improve its performance, with nearly a fifth of services arriving late and 28,000 cancelled in the last year. Furthermore, there has been an increase in the number of services being “shortformed”, where the number of carriages on the train is reduced, from 2,825 in December 2018 to 4,172 in April 2019.
  • Failure to come to an agreement with the RMT union in an ongoing dispute over the role of guards on trains, which has led to 46 days of strikes since March 2017.
  • Continued failure to offer a reliable Sunday operation, with 165 last-minute cancellations and 90 planned this past weekend.
  • Failure to deliver new services promised under the franchise agreement, including additional hourly trains on busy parts of the network.
  • Failure to introduce new trains on the network.

Burnham and Rotherham are now advocating for the Department for Transport (DfT) to implement an ‘Operator of Last Resort’ and bring in a new board and team of directors to run the company.

However, outlining their demands this morning, the mayors said that any action taken must not impede the rights of Northern staff, who they say have worked in difficult circumstances over the past year.

Burnham, who has previously called for fares on services affected by the timetable chaos to be cut, said: “We have been extremely patient with Northern but enough is enough. They promised us that things would be significantly better by May 2019 and that hasn’t happened. Train services across Greater Manchester and the north-west remain unreliable and overcrowded. Sunday services are still subject to widespread cancellation and promises of new rolling stock have not been kept.

“We wish to make clear that we do not blame the staff of Northern, who have worked hard over the last year in very difficult circumstances. We believe they, and the travelling public, have been let down by Northern’s management, who have had plenty of opportunity to show how they will meet franchise requirements but have failed to do so.”

Rotherham added: “Given Northern’s consistent failure to provide an acceptable service, we believe it is now time for Chris Grayling to terminate their franchise and move to that operator of last resort as soon as possible.

“Stripping Northern of their franchise will not solve all of the issues with our railways – the problems go far beyond just them – but it would be an important signal that the north is no longer prepared to put up with a second-class service and a first step towards building the rail network that passengers deserve.”

Responding to the mayors’ accusations, Northern MD David Brown said: “We agree the north deserves the best possible rail service and are working hard to improve the performance and reliability for customers.

“The unacceptable disruption following the May 2018 timetable change was caused by delays in infrastructure projects out of our control. We have apologised to our customers for the pain this caused. We have seen two successful timetable changes since then, introducing many more new services.

“Since last year, we have made a large number of improvements for customers – including better punctuality, investment in new and refurbished trains, over 2,000 new services and hundreds more people employed to help customers. These improvements are still a work in progress – but we are making things better for our customers. We want and expect things to continue to improve.”

Read our in-depth analysis of the Williams Review and changes being made in the rail industry here

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