THE GOVERNMENT’S Operator of Last Resort will take over the Northern franchise from Arriva on 1 March.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had already confirmed the franchise was no longer financially sustainable, which would either result in OLR taking over or a short-term management contract being awarded to Arriva. Arriva’s Northern franchise began on 1 April 2016 for a nine-year term. OLR is already running the East Coast franchise as LNER.
‘This is a new beginning for Northern, but it is only a beginning’ Mr Shapps said in a written statement. ‘Northern’s network is huge and complex, some of the things which are wrong are not going to be quick or easy to put right. Nonetheless, I am determined that Northern passengers see real and tangible improvements across the network as soon as possible.’
Among these improvements, Mr Shapps promised removal of Pacers by the spring and the transfer of electric trains from other areas next year to boost capacity, along with a deep clean of all trains and a review of cleaning patterns. New technology will be trialled to identify crowding pinch points and platforms at 30 stations will be extended. To tackle the number of cancellations to Northern services on Sundays, Mr Shapps has tasked OLR with building on the recent agreement with the drivers’ union ASLEF to improve reliability. It is understood the current branding and livery will be retained but with references to Arriva removed.
Robin Gisby and Richard George, who lead OLR, have been asked to prepare a plan for the first 100 days of the operation, with the scope including operational management, rostering patterns and customer experience. A new North West Recovery Task Force, co-ordinated by Network Rail, will deliver recommendations on how best to boost capacity and performance in the short, medium and longer term. OLR will also work with NR to build ‘a comprehensive new masterplan to review congestion around Manchester’, which will include assessment of the Castlefield corridor as well as key junctions and interactions across the wider network, developing a series of interventions to deliver the improvements required.
Mr Shapps concluded by emphasising that change to the struggling franchising model ‘is coming’ as part of the Williams Review. He said the decision to revert to public sector control of Northern marks ‘the first small step’ in the journey to give local leaders more power over local services.
Responding to the news, Chris Burchell, Arriva MD UK Trains 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 today.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has confirmed a request for proposal has been issued in anticipation that the South Western Railway franchise will also end prematurely.
FirstGroup and MTR took over the franchise in August 2017 in a seven-year deal. SWR’s accounts for the year ending 31 March 2019, published on 3 January, reported a significant operating loss, which the company said had continued beyond the year end date. In a written statement to Parliament, Mr Shapps said: ‘South Western Railway’s (SWR’s) recent financial statements have indicated that the franchise is not sustainable in the long-term. Poor operational performance, combined with slower revenue growth, has led the financial performance of SWR to be significantly below expectation since the franchise commenced in August 2017.’
While the operator has not yet failed to meet its financial commitments, the Transport Secretary said the Department for Transport was preparing suitable contingency measures, with options including a new short-term contract with SWR with ‘tightly defined performance requirements’ or transferring the operation to the Operator of Last Resort (OLR).
Domino theory: Northern the latest to fall – p32