CABINET MINISTERS Grant Shapps and Jake Berry says the imminent financial collapse of under-fire rail operator Northern represents “a light at the end of the tunnel” moment for beleaguered commuters.
They used a joint interview with The Yorkshire Post to put TransPennine Express – and other under-performing rail firms – on notice to improve their performance.
And they used the watershed moment to criticise the performance-related bonuses awarded to senior rail executives across the industry when less than half of trains operating in the North are currently on time.
It comes after the latest “financial information” received by Mr Shapps, the Transport Secretary, confirmed that the Arriva-owned Northern franchise “will only be able to continue for a number of months” unless the Government intervenes.
He will now decide by the end of the month whether to award a short-term franchise – the Government is waiting for a review into rail franchises to report – or to nationalise the service by setting up an Operator of Last Resort under DfT control.
“We’ve got this moment of default which is big, but we’ve now got this opportunity to come together and stop blaming each other, and actually deal with the problems,” Mr Shapps told this newspaper before stressing that day-to-day services, and staff, will be unaffected. “I’m as impatient as anyone to see this fixed and my actions today are part of that journey.
“The important thing is this is a ‘light at the end of tunnel’ moment. I’ve made clear since I became Transport Secretary, as a long suffering commuter myself, people should be able to turn up, the train should be there, they should be able to get home from work.
“I’ve missed picking up my kids from school before because of this – hugely inefficient services and that has to change. I hope this sends a strong signal across the whole network.”
Mr Berry, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, denied that Theresa May’s government had been too slow to respond. Describing this announcement as “a line in the concrete” and a “big step”, he added: “Having a company in financial default, having services that more often than not turning up on time, is completely unacceptable.”
But Mr Shapps accepted that Northern was not solely to blame for the current difficulties – Network Rail upgrades delayed the introduction of new trains – and warned that change “won’t be overnight”.
“I think the way the franchise contracts have been written is not up to the task. The system concentrates on financial default, which is the thing that has allowed us to get today. It should concentrate on service default,” he admitted. “If you don’t run trains on time, you don’t run trains.
“I’ve seen stories of people having to give it up jobs because it was becoming impossible to reliably get to work on time reliably - their lives were being fundamentally changed. For me, and it goes beyond Northern, it is quality of service that matters.”
Asking “how can it be right” that rail executives are paid performance bonuses at this time, he said TransPennine Express – owned by First Group – must improve its longer-distance services.
“On TransPennine, I’ve invited in – I think we can say it will be a ‘no coffee’ meeting – TransPennine, Network Rail and the train manufacturing companies to find out what the hell is going on.” he added. “What has happened with Northern will send a clear signal that we’re not prepared to put up with it.”
Time for a new plan
NORTHERN’S parent company Arriva last night signalled a desire to continue running services.
Chris Burchell, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains, said: “We accept services on the Northern network are not yet good enough. 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’ franchise.”
And Leeds City Region chair, Roger Marsh, welcomed the commitment of Ministers to “integrated, reliable and effective rail transport”.