The Department for Transport will take on responsibility for the Northern Rail franchise from March, it has been announced, meaning that central government will be responsible for more than one rail operation for the first time since 1997.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps yesterday said the DfT operator of last resort would take over the Northern network from Arriva after financial difficulties at the operator.
Shapps had been considering whether the department’s own operator should take on the services or whether Arriva should be given a more tightly-regulated management contract to continue running the line. Yesterday he backed the first option.
He said: “This is a new beginning for Northern, but it is only a beginning.
“Northern’s network is huge and complex and some of the things which are wrong are not going to be quick or easy to put right. But I am determined that Northern passengers see real and tangible improvements across the network as soon as possible.”
Northern’s network is the largest in England, with around 2,800 daily services calling at 528 stations, covering cities including Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Preston.
It has often reported poor punctuality figures and to tackle what the department called the franchise’s infrastructure-related problems, Shapps has told the public sector operator to develop a comprehensive new masterplan with Network Rail to relieve congestion around Manchester, a major network pinch point.
DfT operator of last resort chair Richard George and chief executive Robin Gisby have been asked by Shapps to prepare their action plan in the first 100 days of running the route, after completing “a top to bottom review” of operational management, staff rostering and customer experience.
Shapps said that the decision represented “the first small step towards the north taking back control of its railways” and highlighted that Boris Johnson has pledged to give local leaders a greater say in the network.
“Railways were invented in the north,” he said. “Last year the prime minister promised that we would give the railway back to the places it was born, giving more power over services, fares, and stations to local leaders.
“There will be no more leaving behind. This government is committed to levelling up.”
The decision means that the department’s operator of last resort will be running two rail franchises, having taken over the East Coast route last year. This will be the first time that the government has run two rail franchises since before the initial privatisation of the network was completed in March 1997, as none of the previous interventions by the department – South Eastern Trains (2003-2006) the East Coast mainline (2009-2015) overlapped.
A third route could be added soon, as ministers are also considering whether to take South Western Railway into public ownership due to both poor operational and financial performance.
The move is one of a number of rail policy announcements expected by the department. The recommendations of the Williams review into the future of rail franchising are due to published shortly, while it has also been reported that a final decision on the construction of the High Speed 2 rail link is also expected.
Reports suggest Johnson is set to approve the scheme despite concerns over its growing costs, after it was supported by chancellor Sajid Javid.