Manchester and Liverpool mayors call for termination of Northern’s rail franchise

The mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region have called on transport secretary Chris Grayling to terminate Northern’s rail franchise as soon as possible.

Speaking on behalf of the 4.3m people they represent, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram made the call 12 months on from last May’s rail timetable chaos. The mayors believe Northern has “consistently failed to show they are able to take the action required to restore public confidence or deliver their legally-binding franchise requirements.”

These include:

  • Failure to deliver a significant and sustained improvement in performance – with nearly a fifth of all services arriving late, 28,000 services cancelled, and a huge increase in services being “shortformed” (ie reducing the number of carriages on the train) from 2,825 in December 2018 to 4,172 in April 2019;
  • Failure to resolve the RMT industrial dispute - which has seen 46 days of strike action;
  • Failure to operate Sunday services – last Sunday alone there were 165 unplanned cancellations on top of 90 planned cancellations;
  • Failure to introduce new trains – which means the hated Pacer trains may not be gone by the end of the year as promised;
  • Failure to deliver new services – such as a range of promised additional hourly services in much-needed parts of the network;

The mayors are now urging the Department of Transport to implement an ‘Operator of Last Resort’ and bring in a new board and team of directors to run the company as soon as possible. Both mayors stressed that Northern staff have had to work under difficult circumstances, and emphasised that the rights of Northern staff must be protected under these new arrangements.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham said: “We have been extremely patient with Northern but enough is enough. They promised us that things would be significantly better by May 2019 and that hasn’t happened. That’s why, together with the mayor of Liverpool city region, I am calling on the transport secretary to strip Arriva Rail North of this franchise and stabilise the franchise under the control of the government. It is only through taking this action that we can restore the trust of the public and deliver a rail network that finally works for its passengers.”

Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, said: “Given Northern’s consistent failure to provide an acceptable service we believe it is now time for Chris Grayling to terminate their franchise and move to that operator of last resort, as soon as possible.” More broadly, the two mayors are calling on the government to work with Transport for the North, Transport for Greater Manchester and Merseytravel, to work towards a new vision for rail in the north of England that puts passengers first. 

They also say ministers should keep all options on the table, including further devolution to the North and the option of public operation.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald, echoed the calls made by the two mayors: “Steve Rotherham and Andy Burnham are absolutely right to call for the termination of the Northern Rail franchise,” he said. “The contract has been a failure in every possible sense. A Labour government will end the failed franchising system and unite the whole railway under a single publicly owned company. We will support and empower Transport for the North to build a railway fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century. Chris Grayling can’t wait for another review. He needs to act immediately and bring this failed franchise to an end.”

But Northern Rail have hit back, claiming a “large number of improvements for customers” have already been made. David Brown, managing director at Northern said: "We agree the North deserves the best possible rail service and are working hard to improve the performance and reliability for customers. The unacceptable disruption following the May 2018 timetable change was caused by delays in infrastructure projects out of our control. Since last year, we have made a large number of improvements for customers – including better punctuality, investment in new and refurbished trains, over 2,000 new services and hundreds more people employed to help customers. These improvements are still a work in progress – but we are making things better for our customers. We want and expect things to continue to improve.” 

The Northern franchise is supposed to run until 2025, with an option for an additional year dependent on performance. Transport secretary, Chris Grayling, has previously terminated Virgin Trains East Coast contract, taking the service in-house last year.

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