EXCLUSIVE: Northern condemned by transport bosses for "fundamental failure" to live up to promises about refurbishing its trains

Under-fire Northern has been condemned by transport bosses for a "fundamental failure" to deliver on the promises made to passengers when it bid to become the North's biggest rail operator, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.

A confidential report seen by this newspaper reveals that Northern bosses have asked to be allowed to miss the targets set out in their franchise agreement by as much as 21 months.

As pressure mounts on Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to strip Arriva Rail North (ARN) of the franchise because of its poor performance, the firm is revealed to be "significantly late" in refurbishing its fleet of trains.

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Only 3.5 per cent of the digital improvements which should have been delivered by January 1, including the provision of on-board WiFi, have been made, while a number of trains have yet to have new seat covers and cushions or be given a deep clean.

A Northern train near Colton Junction in North Yorkshire. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has signalled he wants to remove the franchise from Northern, warning he is "simply not prepared" for the service to carry on as it is. Pic: Danny Lawson, PA

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The company says delays to the electrification of key rail lines meant it was unable to use the electric trains it had planned and had to delay the refurbishment of its diesel trains to keep services running. It now says it is "well on the way to completing the refurbishment programme".

The Rail North Committee, which manages the Northern and TransPennine franchises, will meet in Leeds tomorrow (Wednesday) to decide how to respond to the request for more time to make the required improvements.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps visits Blyth at the Newsham South rail crossing. Pic: Stu Norton

But a report describes the request for more time as a "fundamental failure to deliver the ‘transformational franchise’ promised in ARN’s 2016 bid [for the franchise]."

The dossier says that Northern claims to have carried out 80 per cent of the refurbishment programme it promised in its franchise agreement, but "struggles to justify those figures in the evidence it can supply to the Rail North Partnership".

It adds: "There are mitigating factors for some delay but the extent of failure is inexplicable given how much time the operator has had to prepare for it and will significantly impact customer experience."

The report says some trains have been unavailable for refurbishment due to factors including infrastructure delays, relocation of trains to other parts of the network and delays to the introduction of new rolling stock.

The delays to the digital project are described as contractual, with "internal issues within Arriva group" meaning the many contracts required for the various enhancements have been delayed.

But report author Mike Pollard wrote: "The above causes for delay are well understood but given all components of its fleet refurbishment which should have started in 2016, the extent of delay cannot be justified."

The refurbishments are behind schedule in a number of key areas, including improving access for disabled and elderly passengers.

Northern is among the operators given until December 2020 to install Controlled Emissions Toilets, which mean human waste from trains will no longer be discharged onto the tracks.

But as only 75.7 per cent of this task is complete, and a further dispensation is unlikely, trains without the new technology may have to operate with their toilets locked out of use.

Though the improvements should have been made by January 1, 2020, Northern is asking for permission to complete them by the end of this year or in some cases the end of September 2021.

But the report recommends that further dispensations are not allowed and that the "fundamental failure" is dealt with via the Department for Transport's Enforcement Advisory Panel which deals with breaches of a franchise agreement.

It adds: "This is a significant failing and compounds existing customer and stakeholder ill-feeling about ARN’s failure to deliver a transformational franchise in respect of improvements to fleet.

"The current state of the franchise under ARN’s stewardship and its current financial position means any alternative passenger benefit sought in recompense would only result in the costs incurred being picked up by the taxpayer."

Mr Shapps, who is meeting with transport bosses in Leeds this week, says he is taking steps that could lead to Northern losing its franchise, including its services being brought under government control.

And the report seen by The Yorkshire Post says moving to an alternative system, such as a short-term 'direct award', "carries risk to the completion dates of all components of Northern’s fleet refurbishment".

When Arriva was awarded the Northern franchise in 2015, the company boasted in a December 2015 press release that its winning bid was based on "ambitious plans to drive improvements" which included "substantial investment in new and refurbished trains".

The company, which was taken over in 2010 by German-owned Deutsche Bahn, also promised the removal of all Pacer trains within three years.

But a separate report to tomorrow's Rail North Committee meeting reveals just 68 per cent of all Pacers were due to be removed by the end of 2019, meaning a third of the hated 1980s railbuses are still to be removed.

Northern's managing director David Brown said in a statement to The Yorkshire Post: “At the start of our franchise in 2016, we were given a commitment that the electrification of key rail lines would be completed in a timely way, allowing Northern to bring in electric trains.

"This, in turn, would allow us to systematically take diesel trains out of service for refurbishment, making them as good as new.

“However, when it emerged that there would be significant delays in the delivery of those electrified lines, we were unable to use the electric trains we had planned – so this was the main reason we reluctantly had to re-phase the diesel refurbishment programme.

"We took this difficult decision in the best interest of our customers, minimising cancellations and keeping services running. We are now well on our way to completing the refurbishment programme. But we are sorry for the impact our customers have experienced in the meantime.

“Arriva and Northern remain fully committed to delivering the transformation of the North’s railways and improving customers’ experience. We are delivering the biggest transformation of local rail for a generation, with 52 of our 101 new trains in service and driver training taking place on dozens more trains right now.

"Alongside 2,000 extra services per week, this is part of a £600 million investment in improving customers’ experience; we are continuing to invest in better stations, better offers for customers and more recruitment."

The results of the government-commissioned Williams Rail review, which is expected to recommend the end of the current franchising model, will be published later this year.

A spokesman for Transport for the North said: “While we can’t comment on a confidential paper before it’s been discussed by our members, we’ve made our views clear on the failure of Northern to deliver on a number of occasions.”