Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says Northern Rail could be stripped of its franchise in weeks but the Northern Powerhouse Partnership warns this may not improve services. Tony McDonough reports
Stripping Northern Rail of its franchise is not a magic solution to improving the performance of North of England rail services, a powerful business and political group is warning.
On Thursday Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Parliament that Northern Rail, which runs services out of Liverpool Lime Street and across the North, could be stripped of its franchise by the end of the month following years of delays, cancellations and timetable chaos.
Fed-up commuters across the North would welcome such a decisive action but the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a powerful group of Northern business and political leaders, said that unless the infrastructure problems were addressed the rail service will not see significant improvements.
In a written statement to MPs, Mr Shapps said: “Passengers in the north have had to put up with unacceptable services for too long. We understand how frustrating this has been for people and we are taking action to make sure that performance improves.”
In early January Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram, and his Greater Manchester counterpart Andy Burnham, called for “urgent” clarification from the Government on the future of the franchise.
Following Mr Shapp’s statement, Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “While there has been a great public clamour for stripping Northern of their franchise, and a belated recognition that Trans Pennine Express are just as bad, the crying shame is that whoever operates the railways in the North will struggle to run good and reliable services because of the major infrastructure issues in and out of some of our major cities.
“While the forthcoming Williams review will rightly address issues with the franchising process in the North, Government should urgently act to undertake the engineering works needed to allow operators to run services more effectively, including a number that could be started immediately.
“Otherwise we risk a situation where the North faces years more misery on its rail network – regardless of who runs the trains.”
Transport giant Arriva, which operates the Northern Rail franchise said, following Mr Shapps statement, that it accepts its services are “not yet good enough” but insisted many of problems on the network are outside of its control.
Chris Burchell, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains, said: “Assumptions were given when the plan for the franchise was developed that critical infrastructure projects would be delivered to enable growth and support capacity demands. Many of these have either been delayed or cancelled.
“This, along with unprecedented levels of strike action, has had a significant impact on the franchise – both in terms of service and financial performance.
“These challenges will continue to affect services irrespective of who is running them. What is needed is a new plan, and, in that analysis, we are fully in agreement with Government. That is why the Government asked us to prepare a business plan for a shorter ‘Direct Award’.”