THE Northern franchise operated by Arriva Trains North passed back into public ownership in the small hours of Sunday morning.
The franchise is now being run by the Operator of Last Resort, which is a subsidiary of the Department for Transport.
Northern has been terminated after a long period of poor performance and fierce public debate, including protests from city Mayors in Northern’s large territory, which stretches from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. It includes other large cities, including Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield, and its trains run on a complex network of local lines.
The Northern franchise began with high hopes in April 2016, and should have run until April 2025. Key improvements announced in 2016 included the introduction of a large number of new or refurbished trains, along with the final withdrawal of the Pacer ‘railbuses’, which date from the 1980s. Electrication of several important routes was also expected in the early years of the franchise, although the actual work is done by Network Rail. The routes named included Manchester-Preston-Blackpool and also the Oxenholme to Windermere line in the Lake District.
In reality, the Windermere scheme has been postponed indefinitely, while other projects ran late. This meant timetabling problems because Northern was hoping to use electric trains but had to change tack at short notice, resulting in shortages of suitable trains and drivers.
The problems multiplied still further when an industrial dispute flared with the RMT union over the duties of on-train staff, and how much the drivers should take part in dispatching their trains, which in practice means being responsible for closing the doors and deciding when it is safe to start.
The dispute led to almost a year of strikes every Saturday, which disrupted services even more and further fuelled public resentment.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps indicated at the start of the year that time was rapidly running out for Northern.
In a written statement to Parliament in January, Mr Shapps had said: ‘On 16 October 2019 I informed the House, through the Transport Committee, that I had issued a request for a proposal to the current Northern franchisee, Arriva Rail North and to the Operator of Last Resort as the first phase of securing options for the continuation of passenger services on the Northern franchise.
‘This was triggered by concern over the financial position of ARN. It has now been confirmed to me from the most recent available financial information that the franchise will only be able to continue for a number of months.’
His decision to terminate the franchise at the end of February was announced on 29 January.
During this weekend’s changeover, Mr Shapps said: ‘This is a new era for rail in the North, but there will be no quick fix for the network as we build solutions for the future.
‘Today marks the beginning of rebuilding of trust in these services, and voices from the region will be essential as we work together to understand and deliver the improvements passengers need.
‘Our aim is to give the North of England more powers over their railways, restoring the confidence of passengers and delivering a network they can truly rely on.’
Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer added: ‘The Northern franchise change is an opportunity for all parts of the industry to work differently to deliver the services people need and want. Urgent reform is needed to make sure different parts of the railway aren’t pulled in different directions again.’
Mr Plummer is also looking ahead to the publication of the Williams Rail Review, which is due to recommend radical changes to the rail franchising system.
He continued: ‘Our proposals to the government’s review would boost accountability, ensure all parts of the railway are joined up and better deliver for passengers in the long term. The industry is looking forward to the proposed white paper to reform the railway and we stand ready to facilitate smooth implementation with a clear focus on customers.’
Northern’s managing director Chris Burchell has made no comment this weekend, but on 29 January he had said: ‘We had a clear vision for the Northern franchise that would better connect the cities of the North with more frequent, reliable and modern services and unlock economic growth. It was clear however that, largely because of external factors, the franchise plan had become undeliverable. A new plan is needed that will secure the future for Northern train services. As such, we understand Government’s decision.
‘I am confident that as a result of the determination and hard work of the Northern rail team, they have helped set strong foundations for future improvement on the network.’
As the last hours ran out on Saturday evening, the Northern website was assuring passengers that services will not be affected by the change of ownership. All staff can also turn up for their shifts as usual.
What may have been Northern’s final message ironically concerned disruption. Services between Hebden Bridge and Rochdale were suspended because of a track defect, which meant trains from Leeds towards Manchester Victoria were terminating at Hebden Bridge. Replacement buses were being arranged.