Should Northern Rail Be Nationalised? Be Careful What You Wish For

Or: is the Grayling Curse to blame for Northern’s woes?

The rail franchising system is dead. Long live the rail franchising system. In the last year, we have seen a recasting of the rail franchising system in favour of management contracts. Since 1994, rail franchises in Great Britain have mirrored former British Rail profit centres, which in turn have roots in BR’s sectorisation programme by Sir Robert (Basil) Reid.

The Northern franchise has its roots in the Regional Railways sector – previously Provincial. In the North of England, it became two profit centres: North West Regional Railways and Regional Railways North East. They were later separate franchises, won by Great Western Holdings and MTL Holdings in March 1997. Both companies were taken over by FirstGroup and Arriva respectively.

For Northern’s present woes – or more specifically, the passengers’ woes – one has to look at the RRNE franchise under Arriva’s tenure. We see a similar pattern there: strikes, cancellations, staff shortages, and inadequate rolling stock.

From my experience, Arriva Trains Northern’s performance was woeful. I would never forgive Arriva for replacing Stalybridge’s direct trains from Liverpool Lime Street to Scarborough with a direct Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds service. One where you could travel from Stalybridge to Hull Paragon without changing trains on the outward journey. On the return journey, you needed to change at Leeds (and we all know how hellish Leeds station can be in the peaks).

On one occasion, prior to the timetable changes, yours truly boarded a train from Scarborough to Stalybridge where a toilet stop was required at Huddersfield station. The only times when Stalybridge regained its Scarborough trains under Arriva Trains Northern were on strike days.

Apart from bricking what was a decent hourly service with Class 158 Sprinter Express DMUs, they downgraded the rolling stock. Instead of the usual Class 158s on the Trans-Pennine Express route, Stalybridge passengers received tatty Class 150 Sprinters. Sometimes, Metro West Yorkshire PTE liveried Class 155 Super Sprinters. Thankfully, the Scarborough – Liverpool Lime Street service was reinstated in December 2004. In May 2018, that was discontinued in favour of a skip-stop service.

Some of the same tatty trains are gainfully employed by Northern, who lease the trains from Angel Train Contracts. Slowly but surely, new electric trains and diesel trains are coming to Northern, but the same problems that affected Northern’s predecessor have come back to haunt them.

The Crumbling Edge of Quality (Version 10.16)

In principle, I favour the public ownership and public control of inland public transport undertakings. I also believe that public ownership should be extended to domestic scheduled ferry services (i.e.: those operated by Red Funnel to the Isle of Wight and CalMac’s operations) with all undertakings properly funded.

Though British Rail is held in nostalgic affection, the reality was that BR was underfunded compared with similar rail networks in mainland Europe. Today’s rail franchises have twice the amount of funding as British Rail ever did allowing for inflation. There may be two reasons for this: one, the more cost-effective nature of publicly run services; or two, there was more political wherewithal to fund road building schemes. Had there been the same political wherewithal to fund our railways as highly as our motorways, I could have been writing this post on a second generation Advanced Passenger Train.

In recent times, the Department for Transport have had greater success with publicly owned rail franchises. On two occasions, this has been true with the East Coast Main Line: firstly as East Coast, and secondly as today’s version of LNER. Today’s LNER might lack the iconic steam trains, but its customer service and swish new Azuma trains have won plaudits.

With LNER’s successful precedent, how would the Department for Transport run Northern’s trains as an operator of last resort? Due to the complexity of its operating area, I think the DfT would have their work cut out. Perhaps they might bottle out and throw its hapless commuters under a converted Leyland National. I secretly think that the DfT believes that Northern are doing a grand job in widening the North-South economic divide. Which is why I wouldn’t trust the DfT with this present government over being an operator of last resort.

Some of Northern’s problems have been of Her Majesty’s Government’s own doing. Firstly you need to look at Alistair Darling’s wrong-headed decision to award the original franchise to Serco on a no-growth basis. This led to the chronic overcrowding and continued use of Pacer units faced by today’s passengers.

Secondly, the present Northern franchise is a management contract, distinct from the kind of franchise awarded to Serco in 2004. This gives the Department for Transport more control over the franchisee. If you remember why the Northern guards went on strike for two years, it was one of the terms in their franchise agreement. That of one in two Northern services having Driver Only Operation. With the DfT as an operator of last resort, I fear they could be foisting DOO on us all to break the RMT union.

Thirdly, the Department for Transport is culpable for Northern’s lack of adequate rolling stock. Delays with the conversion of Class 319 EMUs into Class 769 bi-mode trains as a stop-gap for delayed electrification works has meant a two to three year extension for the Class 142 and 144 Pacer units. If everything went to plan, the 35-year-old bus-on-a-freight-wagon-chassis stop-gap solution should be spending Christmas at C.F. Booth’s humble abode.

Then there’s the promised infrastructure improvements that the Department for Transport have dragged their feet on – especially in Greater Manchester. Firstly, we are still not sure about the implementation of HS2 and NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail) projects. Secondly, the biggest headache for all franchisees that service Manchester Piccadilly station, are the delays to Platforms 15 and 16. More specifically, the lack of these two platforms which would have accommodated the extra traffic using Ordsall Curve viaduct.

Where, might you ask, should the franchisee share some of the blame? Arriva Rail North could have been more forthcoming in pushing for extra rolling stock, but they have been let down by the DfT and Angel Trains Contracts, their leasing company. The problem is, the deep seated problems that were prevalent in 2015 are still with us in 2019. In the public’s eyes, they are underperforming as each train is cancelled or packed to the gunwales. They see a franchisee that is working against them whilst travelling to work.

With their Northern franchise, there is a case of fresh thinking – one that recognises the importance of guards on trains. The crises that face passengers must also be demoralising for Northern’s drivers, guards, ticket office clerks and support staff. Staff have left for other franchises and open access operators and Arriva haven’t pulled their weight in filling these gaps. Which has led to cancelled services, planned cancellations every Sunday with bustitution on certain routes.

Yes, there is a case for taking the Northern franchise back into public control, and I too would be glad to see a change of franchisee. Or better still, our railways being restored to their rightful position as a publicly owned monopoly. On the other hand, I have no confidence in our present government’s abilities to add the same kind of sparkle seen in LNER’s operations.

Grass isn’t always greener on the other trackside…

Though it is fashionable to call for the stripping of Arriva’s Northern franchise, this isn’t going to wash with the people of Mossley and Greenfield. Since May 2018, they have been nostalgic for the return of Northern’s Pacer units. Why, might you ask, have they been nostalgic for the Nodding Donkeys?

Firstly, Northern’s stopping service from Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield (via Ashton-under-Lyne) was withdrawn last May. In its place is a skip-stop service which makes a once straightforward journey from Mossley to Greenfield a military operation (unless you give up and drive instead).

With capacity levels on the Standedge line almost as full as the packed trains, Transpennine Express have had to cancel some trains. Many of which have been the skip-stop journeys that terminate at Manchester Piccadilly instead of calling at Manchester Victoria. Apart from cancellations meaning two or three hour waits till the next train, access for wheelchair users at Mossley, Greenfield, Marsden and Slaithwaite stations is deplorable.

With Marsden’s third platform being the only accessible platform, TPE’s Manchester Piccadilly bound trains use Platform 2. Therefore, wheelchair users only have one dependable way of getting to Manchester from Marsden: the 184 bus. From the 27 October, this will only reach the city centre on Sundays (as a two-hourly extension of the 84 route). On weekdays and Saturdays, the 184 will terminate at Oldham meaning a change of bus for Manchester. If you are a wheelchair user that wishes to travel to Manchester from Marsden after 7pm, you might have to drive.

Oh, and guess who thought of this bright idea: it was Network Rail’s timetable planning department. How? Before 2012, timetable planning was coordinated at regional level, which was why British Rail had federal boundaries (i.e.: London Midland, Eastern, and Southern regions). Timetable planners at regional level had the local knowledge and may have known about each station’s limitations. Since May 2012, timetables have been compiled in Milton Keynes, Network Rail’s offices on the site of the National Hockey Arena (as stated in a Wired magazine article).

So, if you wonder why your trains are cancelled, there’s every chance your driver could be stuck on a late running service. S/he could be stuck in traffic in a taxi or staff shuttle, due to the state of their usual line. Or it could be that the Department for Transport has failed to invest in the necessary infrastructure. Then there are separate issues that are way beyond the control of your rail franchise and Network Rail.

Greater Manchester Rail: Doing Trains Differently

In a previous article on TfGM’s Our Prospectus For Rail, we looked at the possibility of Greater Manchester having its own rail franchise. In one respect, the present holders of the Northern franchise might want to transfer Manchester North and Manchester South to another party. Especially given how many delays have been affected by the Ordsall Curve and lack of supporting infrastructure improvements.

The ‘other party’ could be Transport for Greater Manchester, whom in the late 2020s could be running trains and tram-trains in the city region and beyond. In 2018, TfGM have floated the idea of taking over the city region’s stations from Northern, Transpennine Express, and Virgin. This is stated in Our Prospectus For Rail, with railway stations being at the heart of the community, as well as their core function.

With the GM Rail proposal, local fares could be integrated with other modes – trams (as at present) and (subject to franchising being the favoured option) buses. As for which Transport Minister scuppered TfGM’s plans to take over 97 railway stations, say no more. It’s the same person who privatised the Probation Service. A service, in newly privatised form, which delayed the demolition of Ashton-under-Lyne’s Probation Office. Which in turn slightly delayed the construction of the town’s new bus station for TfGM.

Should Arriva Rail North be stripped of its Northern franchise? Do you have no faith in the government’s abilities to take over as an operator of last resort? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 16 October 2019.

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