Could there be New Year passenger salvation with Northern Rail being axed?

Did the Grinch steal the rail staff over Christmas?

I took a train to Rochdale during the holiday period. I was lucky, the one before and after mine were cancelled due to 'driver shortage’. 

“There should be a minimum height qualification then,” deadpanned one passenger. 

It wasn’t a laughing matter. My train was so packed you had to go in hard, all elbows and shoulders. 

Just 50% of services arrived on time last year, which is a record for poor UK rail performance

Now (2nd January), Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, is set to do a Grinch on the chief culprit, Northern Rail. Interviewed by the BBC he deplored the “completely unacceptable” service after two years of pathetic performance, poor communication and what appears a species of haughty arrogance from the company’s management. The latter’s weasel words to excuse its performance have added insult to injury.

A rail ticket hike across the country of 2.7%, from 2nd January, while being lower than inflation at 3.1%, has caused further outrage given the level of service, particularly in the North. 

Northern Rail has been quite remarkably bad. Just 56% of services arrived on time last year, which is a record for poor UK rail performance. Terrible industrial relations with its workforce have compounded the problems.

Shapps has, thus, started the process that could lead to ridding Northern Rail of its franchise and place the service back, for the time being, in public ownership. 

Northern Rail Chaos
Not much more than 50% of trains arrived on time last year

Replying to a direct question over stripping the franchise, he said: “That’s right. In the autumn I wrote to the necessary parties in this with what’s called a request for proposal. There are a couple of ways that can go. But one is to strip a franchise, one is to have a short-term contract. But yes, exactly as you’ve said, I’m simply not prepared for the service on Northern to carry on as it is and I am taking action.”

This is not a definitive statement of course, despite numerous reports to the contrary across the media, but it shows the direction of travel, so to speak. Nor did Shapps give a timescale for when this stripping of Northern’s franchise might occur. We have to be wary about taking this off-the-cuff interview statement as a done deal. 

19 10 09 Andy Burnham Bus
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, waiting for a train

Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, seems to share this caution. 

He said: “The transport secretary’s comments are welcome and I stand ready to work with him to develop a solution that works for passengers. But I am concerned that he has left on the table the possibility of Northern having a different form of contract. That would be a reward for failure and completely unacceptable to us. I call on the Government to rule it out, put our rail services under public control and work with us towards Greater Manchester taking devolved control."

Shapps is certainly listening though. He has to. Civic leaders and passenger groups across the North have been in uproar for months. 

2019 01 02 Northern Rail 2
Northern Rail grinding to a terminal halt perhaps

Back to Andy Burnham. Speaking a week or so, before this announcement, he said: “We (should) have more local control over the franchising system.

“There is now consensus that the privatisation has not worked and needs a shakeup, as we continue to see chaos right across the network. For far too long people have faced rising fares whilst operators continue to deliver sub-standard services on a daily basis.

"The Prime Minister has set out his commitment to improve transport in the North – it is beyond time that the government stripped Northern of the franchise and set a deadline for TransPennine Express to improve." 

Burnham has endorsed Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) in their desire to ‘double rail passenger numbers to 200,000 in the regional centre by 2040; increase rail journeys to Manchester Airport by 100% and move towards a minimum standard of four trains per hour service from stations.’ 

Manchester Piccadilly Station
People have faced rising fares whilst operators continue to deliver sub-standard services

This is all very worthy. The problem with saying 'privatisation has not worked' is that the Conservative government with its healthy majority in the House of Commons is ideologically opposed to the nationalisation of the rail system for which so many are calling. Some middle way will have to be conjured up.

The main leverage in the North is that the Prime Minister is going to have to come good on some of the post election promises to Northern constituencies that went his way in December's election. We'll see.

Grant Shapps might have started the procedure leading to Northern losing its franchise. But that's all this is. A start. It's good symbolism, nothing else. What train passengers would prefer in 2020 is a rail service that is functional not dysfunctional. And they would prefer action sooner rather than later. Northern Rail is owned by the German company Arriva. At present, vorsprung durch technik this is not.