The Northern Rail franchise could be taken into public ownership within months, it is understood.
Northern is a train operator serving the Pennines and North of England and is run by German company Arriva. The operator runs 16,000 trains a week, however, cancellations and delays have frequently hit the network, with only 57% of Northern Rail’s trains running on time last year according to figures from the Office for Rail and Road.
Arriva has been asked to draw up plans for how it will make improvements to services on the network, however, it is thought that the government has lost faith in its ability to improve.
Reports suggest that under plans thought to have been prepared by officials, the network which serves a population of around 15 million people could be divided into two parts, North East and North West, marking a radical overhaul of the rail franchise.
It is understood the breakup of Northern Rail would be part of a potential wider plan to take train services in the North of England back under state control, which could take impact as early as 31 March 2020. Transport secretary Grant Shapps said in October that the government was considering plans to bring the operator back under state control, plans that have been backed by lobby group Transport for the North.
The near future could see the Northern franchise taken over by the OLR, or Operator of Last Resort. DfT OLR Holdings Limited was set up by the UK government in order to maintain passenger rail services if a franchise terminates and is not immediately replaced. In June 2018, it took on the running of the East Coast Main Line through London North Eastern Railway (LNER). The website of LNER makes clear that it is not ‘nationalised’ but instead, ‘publicly owned’.
The Northern Rail franchise has had a troubled history with cancellations and delays, problems with infrastructure, timetabling and staffing. Just days ago on Christmas Eve, members of the public faced cancellations as the train operator blamed ‘unprecedented’ levels of staff sickness. In a survey by Which?, commuters gave Northern Rail a score of just 32%, 30th out of 30 train companies in the survey.
The Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram has recently urged Northern rail passengers to sign an open letter to the transport secretary demanding that the operator loses its franchise, and Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has also called on the government to take control of the franchise this year.
The current Northern Rail franchise began on 1 April 2016 and is due to continue until 31 March 2025. However, the future of the franchise does look uncertain and it is now increasingly expected that the franchise in its existing legal entity will be terminated in 2020.