THE GOVERNMENT’S Operator of Last Resort function took over the Northern franchise from Arriva on 1 March 2020.
The decision follows a series of challenges which faced the Arriva operation, culminating in early termination due to financial difficulties. Arriva Rail North’s accounts for the year ended 31 March 2019 describe the year as ‘particularly difficult’ with ‘several material and unprecedented challenges’. The accounts reveal the company made a pre-tax loss of £222.6 million in 2018-19, compared with a profit of £12.7 million the previous year. This change was driven by an onerous contract provision of £180.0 million and impairment assets of £71.3 million. Arriva began operating the Northern franchise in April 2016 through a deal which was due to run until 2025.
Government says the its first priority will be rebuilding passenger confidence, with a new panel launched to provide ongoing advice on how services will be run. The transfer also heralded a change in management, with former Managing Director David Brown moving to the OLR holding company, replaced by Nick Donovan as Managing Director of Northern Trains.
Speaking to Modern Railways at Northern’s Newton Heath depot on 2 March, Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps confirmed that whilst some changes would be immediate, such as deep cleaning of all trains and improvements to Sunday timetables, passengers needed to accept that ‘things won’t change overnight’.
‘I’m asking the new leadership to give me a plan for the things that will make big, significant changes in the first 100 days’ he said. ‘I want to get the service running much more smoothly. Things which have been bad have included poor industrial relations and we’ve had problems with track and with train; some of those things we can tackle quickly, other things will take longer.’
The Transport Secretary accepted that some issues had been outside Arriva’s control but felt the company itself had played a part in its demise. ‘Part of the problem has been the infrastructure, part has been the late delivery of trains but there’s also been a management issue as well and the management is the thing which changes today’ Mr Shapps said. ‘I hope people start to see some improvements, but I appreciate that some people are going to have to be patient, there’s not a magic solution.’
While Robin Gisby and Richard George will work together during the first 100 days to prepare a plan for the franchise, Mr Gisby also confirmed urgent work was needed alongside this review. ‘We need to get
on and invest in the business right now, to sort out the depot facilities, to do things about the uniforms, just to make things better for the staff because they’ve had a pretty tough time’ the Northern Trains Chairman told Modern Railways. ‘We need to focus on the operating basics – reducing cancellations, Sunday working and just running trains on time; that’s what we’re going to do to start with. In the next 100 days we’re going to look at where we want to invest in the future; we’ll work with Network Rail and look at capacity issues and there will be a big focus on the December 2021 timetable because we’ve got to restructure some things around that.’
Whilst previous franchise terminations have seen a new brand applied to the business it has been confirmed that, at least for the time being, there are no immediate plans to rebrand the identity left by Arriva, other than the removal of the ‘by arriva’ line below the Northern name. A spokesperson for Northern Trains said ‘We believe our first priority should be to restore stability and to work collaboratively with stakeholders and customers on these decisions. Ultimately, we want the Northern franchise to be rooted in its communities and become a railway of the people, for the people. Decisions on the branding and name of Northern will be taken collaboratively at the appropriate time.’