The government is reportedly weighing up the possibility of nationalising services operated by Northern Rail following ‘poor performance’ from the company.
According to the BBC, transport secretary Grant Shapps said he has requested proposals from the firm and the Operator of Last Resort (OLR), saying Northern’s performance “cannot continue”.
Shapps was giving evidence to the Commons’ Transport Select Committee on his priorities as the new transport secretary. He said it was unacceptable to “carry on just thinking it is okay for trains not to arrive, or Sunday services not to be in place”.
The Department for Transport (Department for Transport: The UK government department responsible for the English transport network, as well as transport matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are not devolved.) agreed Northern has faced challenges on its franchise, including delays to infrastructure upgrades being undertaking by Network Rail, but that the request for proposal submitted to the operator “enables the department to examine whether the contract is properly aligned with current operating challenges in the North” and to “determine whether the franchise owner or an OLR would be best placed to tackle these issues and deliver for passengers”.
Northern was severely impacted by disruption following the introduction of a new timetable last summer, which saw commuters facing last-minute cancellations and delays for weeks. The franchise has since seen passenger numbers fall.
Shapps said the company “has failed to recover”.
In response to the secretary of state’s comments, Northern MD David Brown said: “It’s on record that the Northern franchise has faced several material and unprecedented challenges in the past couple of years, outside the direct control of Northern. The most significant of these is the ongoing late delivery of major infrastructure upgrades.”
Brown specifically pointed to a two-year delay to electrification of lines in the North West, which meant the firm “could not use electric trains on that route or cascade diesel trains from that route to run more services elsewhere on our network”.
Longer platforms at stations in Leeds have also been delayed, forcing the company to postpone plans to operate longer trains.
Brown continued: “These factors – alongside the damage caused by strike action and lower than expected economic growth – have had a significant effect on the revenue expected in our original franchise business plan agreed with government back in 2015. That’s why the government has asked us to prepare a business plan for a shorter ‘Direct Award’. We are well underway with the development of that plan, which will see the completion of our transformation programme.
“Arriva and Northern remain fully committed to delivering the transformation of the North’s railways and improving customers’ experience.”
Sources have also told the BBC that the firm, which is owned by Arriva, “has been losing money for some time”.
The OLR is currently in charge of London North Eastern Railway (LNER) on the East Coast Mainline and has received the backing of Transport for the North for taking over the Northern franchise.
The Department for Transport: The UK government department responsible for the English transport network, as well as transport matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that are not devolved. could reportedly also consider allowing Northern to continue operating services with more government oversight.
Shapps’ comments come as the government awaits the Williams Review, which could lead to a shake-up in the way the UK’s railways are run – something hinted at in the Queen’s Speech earlier this week.