1. Transport
  2. Rail
January 3, 2020

The source of Northern Rail’s problems isn’t the franchise holder: it’s the government

By Stephen Bush

Arriva is to have its Northern rail franchise revoked, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced, due to repeated delays and poor service.

There’s no doubt that Northern is by any measure you care to pick the worst-performing rail franchise in the United Kingdom. It consistently comes bottom of Transport Focus’ passenger surveys. It is plagued by delays and poor service. But there is no reason to believe that an alternative franchise operator, whether run by another company or the state, will lead to significant improvements.

Arriva runs Northern – but it also runs Chiltern Railways, which is consistently ranked the best-performing complex rail franchise, and CrossCountry, which also does pretty well. (I use the word “complex” because I am ignoring the various express services to the United Kingdom’s airports, which are consistently highly rated but are much less complex to operate and run than any other part of the rail network.)

This isn’t a story about privatisation working in the south of England but not the north of England: the railway franchises that repeatedly compete with Chiltern for the title of best in service are Hull Trains and Merseyrail. Both are privately run franchises serving the north of England. The problems with the Northern franchise are about the parts of the network the government already runs: the quality of the track and other related infrastructure. It is these problems that make Northern’s service so unreliable. It’s not that Arriva simply forgets how to run trains once they go past Staffordshire.

One of the mistakes that Labour’s repeated focus on Northern’s inadequacies – both on its frontbench and its local government leadership – is that it directs public anger to a particular franchise-holder, not to the Secretary of State for Transport, who is ultimately the major source of Northern’s problems.

That’s not necessarily an argument against re-nationalising the railways: at present we essentially have a system where the government sets train fares, mandates the level of return that the companies running it must provide to the Treasury and sets service levels – but where it has effectively managed to privatise the blame for poor services, even when, in the case of Northern, the fault is with government policy. (A similar case applies with the troubled East Coast franchise, which has repeatedly had to be taken back into public hands, because of the difficulty that operators have meeting their financial obligations to the state and running a decent rail service.)

Bringing Northern into public hands might drive improvements if responsibility for providing day-to-day services and critical infrastructure sits in the same person’s lap. But handing it to another company, or giving responsibility for day-to-day provision to the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, while keeping control over infrastructure spending in the hands of the Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, won’t fix the problem. It is what Shapps’s predecessors have failed to do on railway infrastructure, not Arriva’s handling of day-to-day services, that Shapps should be angry about.

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Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman, where this article first appeared.

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