Northern rail franchise could collapse within months, says Grant Shapps

The troubled Northern rail franchise faces financial collapse within months, the transport secretary has said, as the government set out a timetable to tackle the “unacceptable services” for rail passengers in the north.

Grant Shapps told the Commons that he would choose between a fresh short-term contract for the operating company Arriva, or temporary renationalisation before the end of January.

“It has now been confirmed to me from the most recent available financial information that the franchise will only be able to continue for a number of months,” the minister said.

In a written statement, Shapps said the longer-term future of Northern rail services would be shaped by the Williams review, an inquiry that has recommended overhauling the entire rail franchising system.

He said he would choose how to proceed based on “which option returns most money to the taxpayer, the risks attached to each, and the value of any improvements in passenger services”.

The state-run “operator of last resort” has already stepped in to take over the East Coast franchise, now LNER, when the Stagecoach-run Virgin Trains ran out of money in June 2018. Another franchise, South Western Railway, could go bust within the year, according to company accounts published on Tuesday.

Confirmation of imminent action on Northern comes as Shapps said passengers in the north had had to put up with unacceptable services for too long.

Arriva said many of the problems were outside the control of whoever may run the service. Chris Burchell, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains, said: “We accept services on the Northern network are not yet good enough and we sincerely apologise to our customers for our role in that.”

He added: “Many of the issues affecting the franchise, however, are outside the direct control of Northern. Assumptions were given when the plan for the franchise was developed that critical infrastructure projects would be delivered to enable growth and support capacity demands.

“Many of these have either been delayed or cancelled. This, along with unprecedented levels of strike action, has had a significant impact in terms of service and financial performance. These challenges will continue to affect services irrespective of who is running them.”

Neighbouring franchise TransPennine Express (TPE) has also had mass cancellations, which have worsened since December when it admitted it could not implement a new timetable owing to staff shortages and problems introducing new trains.

Shapps’ Commons statement comes a day after both train operators came under intense criticism from political leaders in the north, at a public meeting in Leeds.

The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, demanded a deadline for TPE to improve its services. The rail operators said infrastructure, delays in the delivery of new trains, extreme weather and “unprecedented” levels of sickness had caused the poor services of the last few months.

According to figures from the Office of Rail and Road, 56% of Northern trains arrived within one minute of the timetable in the year to 7 December. This compared with the national average of 65%.

The RMT union said the latest announcement by Shapps was “just another fudge” but proved franchising was finished. Its general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “Other basket cases – South Western Railway, ‎ScotRail, TransPennine Express and the rest – should also be put out of their misery and be brought into public ownership as soon as is practically possible.”