How to fix Northern Rail for good

Danny Lawson/PA Wire/PA Images

Commuters in the north rejoice: the government is stripping Northern Rail of its franchise. After years of failures, delays and frustration, on Thursday, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced his intention to withdraw the franchise – which operates trains across the north east and north west of England – from German company Arriva because it was “completely unacceptable”.

The result could be that Northern is taken into new hands, whether by another franchisee, or an operator of last resort (OLR), under public ownership similar to the East Coast rail franchise that existed from 2009 to 2015, and which helps run the LNER service today.

“I’m simply not prepared for the service on Northern to carry on as it is and I am taking action,” Shapps told the BBC. With just four in ten trains operating on time in November 2019, and one in 16 cancelled altogether, commuters’ frustrations have been boiling over for a while. But what has gone wrong at Northern to result in 165 services being taken out of action at its worst, in the summer of 2018? And how can whoever takes over the services get them back on track?

Although Shapps laid the blame at the door of Northern, tackling the issues experienced by commuters will take more than simply a change of operator. “This [situation] is down 30 per cent to Arriva Trains North, and 70 per cent down to the infrastructure,” says rail consultant Christian Wolmar. “You can improve that 30 per cent. The 70 per cent is a much longer problem to try and improve.”

Among the first things in whoever takes over Northern’s in-tray would be a difficult conversation with Network Rail, which oversees much of the rail infrastructure (and has been equally to blame for Northern’s travails).

Northern’s managing director has previously blamed many of the delays on the slow pace at which upgrades to key pieces of infrastructure have been carried out. This includes a troublesome programme of electrification, focused around a particularly slowly-electrified section of track between Blackpool and Preston. Delays to the electrification of these sections of the track, which sits on Northern’s rail network, mean that electric trains – many of which Northern is bringing into service – can’t run from Manchester, the north’s hub station, to Wigan and Leeds. The electricity infrastructure simply isn’t there.

To plug the gap, Northern has ordered slower, less-reliable diesel trains in their stead. But the delivery of those trains has been repeatedly marred by delays, partly because train manufacturers are focused on constructing electric trains instead of outdated diesel-powered ones. “The promised extra capacity and comfort has failed to arrive, leading to trains that are too full to board even when the trains do run,” says Thomas Forth of ODI Leeds, who studies public transport data.

Northern blames other factors too. It says that a slowdown in the UK’s economic growth has affected its ability to operate the service because the franchise had forecast higher revenues than it is receiving. That isn’t something whoever comes in to operate the service can tackle. What they can do is not an easy decision: forgo short-term profit to bring the service back to a standard that’s acceptable for customers.

“At the moment, there is always this requirement to make a profit, and spending extra money doesn’t help the bottom line,” says Wolmar. Of course, no business is going to accept those terms, so if the government really means business it will likely have to appoint an operator of last resort, an emergency measure that requires the organisation to not seek profit, but just to fix problems. A company, DfT OLR Holdings Limited, already exists for that purpose for the LNER franchise.

A simple solution may actually be around the corner, following the December general election and the resulting repositioning of voters the Conservatives need to appease. In the last decade, transport in the north has seen chronic underinvestment in comparison to London: figures compiled by IPPR North show that the average amount of spending per person on transport in London has been 2.4 times more than in the north – £739 compared to £305. “Where investment has been made, rail services in north England are greatly improved and improving,” says Forth.

While it may sound simplistic, spending more cash would really make a difference. Rolling stock in the north, including the infamous Pacer trains (which were adapted from a passenger bus design in the 1980s and which serve key Northern commuter routes), is decades old, and overdue replacement. The risk, as always, is that political expediency may beat long-term thinking. Investment in rail won’t bring about visible returns until after the next election in 2024; politicians may instead prioritise short-term, quicker gains such as improving bus services.

But Luke Raikes, a senior research fellow at think tank IPPR North, says that the government might indeed put in place some “quick wins”. These are “the smaller shovel-ready rail projects that can make a difference in the north in the next five years,” he says. The list includes reopening theNorthumberland line between Newcastle and Ashington, which would feed into the Tyne and Wear Metro light rail system (the north east’s equivalent of the London Underground), and improving services in the Tees Valley, allowing commuters to travel easier across the region. Another route in need of upgrading is the East Coast mainline, which is close to capacity of its two tracks north of York; improvements to the Tees Valley rail would help connect the line to Teesport, a major port in Teesside.

Raikes also believes the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project – which would connect key cities in the north and south, and which prime minister Boris Johnson will have to approve or decline to start work on in the coming weeks after the project costs ballooned from £26 billion to £88 billion – should start with work in the north, rather than the south. He also recommends that work commence on the Northern Powerhouse Rail – erstwhile HS3 – which would connect the north’s cities together.

Another problem to tackle is the infamous Castlefield Corridor, which bunches up trains around Manchester’s Oxford Road station. Although experts say it’s only possible to run around a dozen trains an hour through the corridor, Northern currently schedules 15 trains every hour to pass through the track routes, even though there physically isn’t enough space for them. “You just physically can’t do it,” says Wolmar, “Essentially, you need a couple of extra tracks, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Plans were afoot to build two new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly, but now appear to have stalled. In September 2019, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris told a Commons transport committee that there were no plans to build the new platforms for the expanded services. That means there’s not enough space on the track for the scheduled timetable. “This creates cascading delays and cancellations that affect services as far away as Liverpool and Edinburgh, and everywhere in between,” says Forth. Dozens of trains are cancelled daily – at short notice – because there’s simply no space on tracks or at platforms for them.

Capacity stresses could be eased by running longer trains on those busier routes, but that too needs investment in stations to lengthen platforms. High on the government’s priority list should be building those extra platforms, and lengthening others.

Already the north – and Northern – has benefitted from some improvements. Some long electric trains, many of which were originally deployed in London for three decades, have been shipped up to the north and now run on Northern routes between Manchester, Bolton and Blackpool. New electric trains take passengers from Liverpool to Glasgow.

Small actions have had a big impact, and show a possible model for the future. But make no mistake: this isn’t easy. Whoever takes over will be confronted with a long list of priorities, and one that won’t be cleared for a long time. Passengers will likely keep suffering in the foreseeable future. However, both Wolmar and Forth think that the new Northern operators will find one respite: industrial relations, which have been at a low for years, will ease simply thanks to new faces, even if those faces are Conservative politicians from the Department of Transport. Anything would be better than Northern’s bosses.

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