Yorkshire rail passengers promised better trains - after civil servant tries to block them

Nick Clegg during a visit to Sheffield train station. Rail passengers in northern England have been promised more seats, more services and new trains under franchise plans announced by the Government.
Nick Clegg during a visit to Sheffield train station. Rail passengers in northern England have been promised more seats, more services and new trains under franchise plans announced by the Government.
  • ‘Bus on wheels’ trains to be scrapped - but for another five years
  • Free wifi on all trains by 2020
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Yorkshire rail passengers were today promised a fleet of new trains as the Government asked companies to bid for the right to run services across the North.

Bidders for the northern and transpennine rail franchises will be expected to add more than 200 train services.

The Department for Transport said the northern rail franchise holder would be expected to “replace outdated Pacer trains” - but not until 2020.

According to the documents inviting companies to bid, the winning bidder of the northern franchise - which covers the bulk of local services in Yorkshire - will be expected to order “at least 120 new-build carriages” and double the number of services “on many routes”.

The franchise holder will also be expected to invest at least £30 million in stations and introduce free wi-fi on all trains by 2020.

But as the details were being announced, it emerged that a senior civil servant had sought to block the Pacer replacements - foring the Transport Secretary to overrule his most senior official.

Nick Clegg during a visit to Sheffield train station.

Nick Clegg during a visit to Sheffield train station.

Documents released by the Department for Transport show that Secretary of State Patrick McLoughlin received an official letter from Permanent Secretary Philip Rutnam telling him the move could see £250m reduced from the amount they could make from franchise bids, leaving the department with a budget black hole as they prepare for yet another tight spending review.

Mr Rutnam also sought to convince Mr McLoughlin that a simple upgrade to existing fleets could work just as well. Setting out his “reservations” about scrapping Pacers, the official said there would be “large cost to bring forward replacements to 2020 but relatively few benefits,” adding that research suggests the move is “poor value for money.”

The official, whose job comes with a salary of around £160,000, said bidders should have the flexibility to keep the trains in use, modified for disabled customers.

In a hint at why the minister might wish to avoid the Pacer demand, Mr Rutnam ends his letter making clear that a decision to go advice might draw the attention of the influential Public Accounts Committee.

Much of the exisitng network has be starved of investment, leaving poor facilities, sparse timetables and trains that should have been scrapped a decade ago.

James MacColl, Campaign for Better Transport

Mr McLoughin pressed ahead with the rail order, writing to his permanent secretary making clear the move will go ahead.

“I do not consider the consider that the continued use of these uncomfortable and low quality vehicles is compatible with our vision for economy growth,” he said.

The Government wants the winner of the transpennine franchise - connecting Yorkshire to the North West - to introduce extra capacity, earlier and later services, more services on Sundays and look at introducing connections to Scotland.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “This is an historic moment for the North. Improving rail links in the region has been much anticipated.

“These old trains have been rattling across rails in the North for over 30 years; a constant source of complaint which have held the region back.”

Companies shortlisted to run the new franchises were announced in August 2014. Competing for Northern are Arriva, Govia and Northern, while on the shortlist for TPE are FirstGroup, Keolis/Go Ahead and Stagecoach.

James MacColl, head of campaigns at the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “This is a step toward the modern, high-capacity rail network northern cities need to connect them.

“Much of the exisitng network has be starved of investment, leaving poor facilities, sparse timetables and trains that should have been scrapped a decade ago.”

Companies now have until the end of May to bid for the transpennine franchise and until the end of June for the northern franchise.

Both franchises are due to start in February 2016.

The Northern franchise operates local, commuter and rural services throughout the region, and a number of long-distance services linking major towns and cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, York, Manchester, Bradford, Preston and Blackpool.

The TransPeninne Express franchise provides longer-distance intercity-type services, connecting the major cities of Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Hull, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as Manchester Airport.