Northern franchise taken over by DfT as Operator of Last Resort from the 01 March

After several rumours and persistent lobbying by Northern English political figures in the last six months, it was announced today that Arriva lost its Northern rail franchise. Under the Anglo-German company’s tenure, the rail franchise was dogged by poor service, delayed rolling stock deliveries and gross overcrowding.

Months into the Arriva Rail North franchise, there was industrial action due to the proposed implementation of DOO (Driver Only Operation) on 50% of their routes. This was thwarted by the RMT, which led to Arriva reneging on the original plan.

Shortly after the strikes, issues over Rest Day Working led to the cancellation and bustitution of some services on Sundays. This affected the North West division of Arriva Rail North more than their peers in the North East division. For most Sundays, the Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria service was operated by rail replacement buses – many of which hired from Arriva North West. Last Sunday [26 January 2020], Northern’s Sunday trains returned to Stalybridge.

In the last two years, a Sunday train from Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria has been a rare beast. Due to Rest Day Working issues, the Old Lanky line has been bustituted on most Sundays. Here’s 150104, led by 150269 (off camera) on the 1503 journey to Wigan North Western.

The tipping point for its commuters and the Department for Transport was the amount of planned cancellations over Christmas 2019. This was also punctuated by rolling stock shortages leading to shortened formations across the Northern rail network. Furthermore, this was exacerbated by the delayed withdrawal of Northern’s infamous Class 142 and Class 144 Pacer units.

For Metro Mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, and Northern’s long-suffering commuters, the Department for Transport’s decision was well received.

Mick Cash, General Secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union said: “Northern has become a signal for everything that is wrong on Britain’s broken, privatised railways and the fact that the Government have now been forced to take this action today will open the floodgates towards wholesale public ownership of our railways as other franchises fall like dominoes or simply choose to cut and run in the face of the inevitable.”

Furthermore, he hopes that Northern’s transition from privatised basket case franchise to a publicly controlled one “isn’t a short term fix and a holding operation, pending another punt on another bunch of private speculators.”

Well documented problems

Northern’s well documented problems are partly self-inflicted, with many problems beyond the scope of the franchisee. Neither Arriva Rail North nor its fellow franchisees could legislate for the Ordsall Curve chaos and lack of capacity in central Manchester. Northern’s future franchise holders are culpable, thanks to the postponement of associated works at Oxford Road and Piccadilly stations.

Of the DfT’s Ordsall Curve project, the other two thirds of the work included the addition of two new through platforms (15 and 16) at Manchester Piccadilly station. Also an upgrade to Manchester Oxford Road station. So far, only the curve has been completed, with a nice new bridge cutting off the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry’s direct rail link with Network Rail metals.

Then came the May 2018 timetable changes. On paper, the timetable meant a new way of crossing Manchester from Victoria to Piccadilly. In the end, gridlock at Deansgate junction became the norm – thanks to the lack of resilience in Network Rail’s track paths. With the upgrade works, the May 2018 timetable may have worked more efficiency.

With more trains being delayed, this inevitably meant more drivers and guards being held up on trains. A late running guard or driver could hold in the balance the status of his/her subsequent train on their roster. To alleviate this, Northern had ferried some staff to stations and depots by car instead of rail. On paper that could have solved the franchise’s staffing problems. When you add Manchester’s chronic congestion to the mix, our guard or driver has similar problems to his colleague on the delayed 1703 from Stalybridge.

With the lack of staff at any given time, this leads to delays and cancellations. Some punctuality and reliability issues can be caused by ageing rolling stock and maintenance issues. Even Northern’s new additions to the rail network have had teething troubles with some passengers pining for the Pacer units.

Since New Labour’s wrong-headed decision to offer the original Northern franchise on a no-growth basis in 2004, the North-South Rail Divide has become a chasm. Apart from the arrival of Class 195 DMUs and Class 331 EMUs, Northern English passengers have had to be content with clapped-out rolling stock. Cascaded trains from the South of England and the West Midlands. Despite the new arrivals, refurbished Sprinter units will continue to play a part in Northern’s rail operations. Likewise with the cascaded Class 319 EMUs – some of which awaiting conversion to Class 769 bi-modes.

Arriva Rail North’s issues would test many a franchisee. They could be a test for Northern Trains Limited, the DfT’s newly created Operator of Last Resort. Could Northern Trains Limited succeed in reassuring customers in a better way than Arriva Rail North ever did?

The commuter is always right

Whether the cancellation is caused by events beyond Arriva Rail North’s control or the franchise’s management, the commuter has every right to feel aggrieved. Northern’s self-inflicted problems seem to be on the customer service side of things.

By customer service, this includes the derisory level of compensation given to passengers under the Delay Repay scheme. A level that makes you think they are using the DWP’s Universal Credit computer for calculating delay repayments. Also the state of some railway stations, which is why Transport for Greater Manchester wishes to take over most stations in its city region. This could range from ticket machines being non-existent to lifts not working for several months or years.

Another aspect of travelling by Northern is the feeling of hostility that affects its regular and not-so-regular passengers. Each peak hour is punctuated by a menacing number of (non-Northern) ticket barrier staff, even at the smallest of stations. Then there’s the red lines on platforms 13 and 14 at Manchester Piccadilly and its army of barkers, chivvying its passengers away from the edge.

If you thought the passengers’ peeves only concerned timekeeping and fares, the Northern Random Unit Generator must be another one. For many passengers, the franchisee’s fleet management means you do not know if your train would be a four-car Super Sprinter or a two-car Pacer unit. The lack of consistency, apart from diminishing the ‘product’, can be problematic for passengers with mobility issues. The gap between step and platform edge may vary from one unit to another. The seats may be inadequate for passengers with back pain. In some cases, there may be no wheelchair user friendly toilet.

Where next?

Will Arriva Rail North’s publicly controlled successors perform miracles? For the next year, it is best not to expect immediate improvements. In principle, we approve of the franchisee’s transfer to public ownership – hopefully as a long term measure.

What we should resist is if Northern Trains Limited is used to apply Williams Review cost-cutting measures. Such as dusting down the Driver Only Operation proposals. Also the creation of Northern Trains Ltd as a ‘model franchisee’ for imposing no-strike contracts on station staff, guards and drivers.

Northern’s satisfaction levels are among the lowest among UK rail passengers. We mustn’t forget that the sheer size of the undertaking and their elderly trains has given another Northern English franchise a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. One with inferior performance figures but faster long distance trains, which happen to serve Edinburgh instead of Edale.

The problems with Northern affect us on a more fundamental level because they are our local trains. The train to our workplace, the train to our town centres. The train that helps you get from Guide Bridge to Glasgow Central – in the hope that Northern’s service connects with the Transpennine Express to Scotland. A distress purchase, because the other alternatives are slow and expensive or tiresome.

In the last year, a journey on Arriva Rail North’s trains has for many passengers been slow, expensive and tiresome. Due to the lack of further options, they still take the oft-cancelled, overcrowded or slow journey to work. It’s the economics of a Motorway Service Area on the permanent way.

By 2024, the rail scene could change again. We could be four years into the Northern franchise being a publicly-owned and publicly-run operator. Or “another bunch of private speculators” could be running the show. Greater Manchester’s suburban trains could fall under the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s GM Rail scheme. All but a handful of the city region’s stations could be managed by TfGM.

Would we be ‘proud to be Northern’ in 2024? Here’s hoping the 01 March 2020 would be start of something positive. Fingers crossed.

A newly refurbished Class 150/2 Sprinter unit interior. These seats, thankfully, use proper moquette instead of that cloth stuff (seen on the Class 319s) which gets dirty in seconds. Plus I had to wipe my feet on Platform 5 of Stalybridge station before boarding the thing. No, really.

S.V., 29 January 2020.

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