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Franchising crisis deepens as West Midlands joins the doubtful list

THE rail franchising crisis has deepened in the past 24 hours, with West Midlands Trains now joining the list of contracts in doubt. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also confirmed that contingency plans are being developed to replace Northern.

The Prime Minister was answering a question about WMT from West Worcestershire MP Harriett Baldwin in the House of Commons, who put it to him that the recent performance of WMT has been ’absolutely woeful’. She also asked Mr Johnson if he agreed with West Midlands mayor Andy Street, who says WMT should only have until the end of this month before the cancellation of its franchise is considered.

Mr Johnson said the issue was being looked at, and that the ‘bell is tolling for West Midlands rail’.

He also confirmed remarks made about Northern by transport secretary Grant Shapps on 2 January, who had said: ‘I’m going to take action — there are a couple of ways that can go, but one is to strip the franchise and one is to have a short term contract.’

The Prime Minister told Makerfield MP Yvonne Fovargue: ‘I have to say to the hon. Lady that I share her outrage, and I understand what she says. We are developing contingency plans for a replacement for Northern Rail. We are also looking at the whole way that the franchising system operates.’

South Western Railway, meanwhile, has reported a loss of £137 million in the year to March 2019, and says cash support from its owners FirstGroup and MTR may not last until the end of this year. SWR’s dispute with the RMT over on-train staffing also remains unresolved, after almost a month of strikes in December.

More question marks hang over Greater Anglia, which along with SWR has complained about the effect of the DfT’s Central London Employment Mechanism on franchise finances, and TransPennine Express, which is expected to notch up a loss of more than £100 million for its owners FirstGroup by the time that the present contract ends in April 2023.

Abellio, which owns majority shares in West Midlands Trains and Greater Anglia, has also come under fire from the Scottish Government, which is going to use a break point in the contract to terminate Abellio’s ScotRail franchise in March 2022. Extensions up to 2027 had been on the cards.

The Rail Review from Keith Williams is now awaited as a White Paper, and Mr Johnson has already referred to Mr Williams’ ‘very valuable report’.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald has responded in an article on the Politics Home website, published this morning.

He says: ‘It’s very clear to me what needs to be done. We need a rail system which is simplified, accountable and affordable. Key to achieving this is unifying rail operations and infrastructure under public control.

‘I also said that the government’s review and its recommendations would be usurped by events. The Tory government has kept a number of rail franchise contracts on life support for political reasons. Arriva Rail North, First Transpennine Express, First/MTR South Western and Abellio Greater Anglia have all been described as zombie franchises.

‘All of these contracts were awarded by Tory Ministers. All are hanging by a thread, losing money and providing poor service. All of them are undeliverable with significant costs both to taxpayers and passengers … Tory Ministers must come clean and be honest about these failing rail contracts and turn off the life support.’

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