ARRIVA probably had to be stripped of the Northern rail franchise.
Delays, cancellations, strikes, overcrowding and the poor state of much of the rolling stock had led to falling passenger numbers, big losses (despite hundreds of millions of pounds of government subsidy) and widespread discontent from the public and Northern politicians who feel the company’s failures are emblematic of infrastructure neglect outside London.
Given the Government’s resolve to boost its standing in northern England, nationalisation looked like a no-brainer.
But if Grant Shapps thinks his widely-anticipated announcement will boost the Government’s popularity, other than temporarily, he may be disappointed.
The difficulties with this franchise, covering hundreds of miles of track and over 500 stations, have rather more to do with longstanding problems which are as much the fault of the Government and the state-owned Network Rail as of the franchise holder.
As yet, there is precious little sign that the Department for Transport has much of a plan to tackle the underlying problems.
Northern is to be run by the Government’s Operator of Last Resort (which, incidentally, has not been doing the greatest job with the LNER franchise on the East Coast Main Line), but this will make little difference at the moment.
The same 5,000 or so staff – give or take a handful of senior managers – will be running the same trains on the same tracks. Carriages will probably be repainted and some of the staff will get new uniforms, but the operator will still face the same problems.
Parts of the Northern network are in poor condition after decades of neglect. Most trains still run on polluting diesel, as electrification has been very limited, and where completed there have been delays.
Some routes are single-track, meaning low speeds, sparse services and few passengers. Many stations are visited by just a handful of trains a day – the Ormskirk to Preston line in Lancashire, or the Esk Valley line to Whitby, for example.
Elsewhere better-patronised Northern services on busy routes into – or between – major cities compete for very limited track space with faster TransPennine trains and are prone to delays.
One key bottleneck is the ‘Castlefield Corridor’ – the stretch of heavily-used track between Deansgate and Manchester Piccadilly. Under the last franchising process, Northern and TransPennine Express planned more trains following government encouragement and assurances of planned improvement works to this short but key rail corridor.
However, as a recent Network Rail report makes clear, the running of additional services proved physically impossible, partly because necessary infrastructure work (including new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly) was not completed to schedule. The result was the timetabling chaos we saw in 2018, with many services being scrapped while others were heavily overloaded. As so many trains across the north travel through the Castlefield Corridor, there were serious knock-on effects on services across the rest of the network.
These problems were exacerbated by late delivery of new trains. Tighter modern safety regulations require time-consuming testing of new trains and regulations also require lengthy training for drivers both on the trains and new routes. The schedule for this necessary preparation was badly disrupted.
This further increased delays and meant passengers had to put up with clapped-out rolling stock such as the notorious Pacers, those familiar superannuated buses on rails. This meant added discomfort for passengers, especially those with disabilities, further overcrowding and too-frequent breakdowns.
Then there was the long-running dispute with the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) over the issue of guards on trains, leading to major cancellations at weekends for months on end. Industrial relations remain poor, and there are ongoing issues about pay, poor timekeeping and staff availability for weekend work.
This is not to deny that Arriva’s handling of the Northern franchise could have been a darn sight better. But it does indicate that simply renationalising the franchise is only the beginning of trying to sort out the problems affecting so much of the North’s vital rail network.
Professor Len Shackleton is Editorial and Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.