Leaders and businesses applauded the Government’s decision to renationalise the beleaguered Northern rail franchise, saying it has fallen short of delivering an acceptable service to passengers for years.
However, they called for the decision to be supported by increased funding of rail and related infrastructure in the North following decades of under investment.
In a joint statement, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, and Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, said: “[The] news is a victory for passengers who have had to endure almost two years of misery and mayhem on Northern Rail.
“But it is only the start of fixing the North’s railways. The Government must now commit to investing in much needed rail infrastructure, and work with leaders across the North to deliver the vision and funding needed to build the modern transport network that the people of our region deserve.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps announced on Wednesday that Northern would be stripped of its franchise to German-owned Arriva from 1 March, when the Government will take over the running of services.
Northern’s network runs between Liverpool, Manchester, Stoke, Leeds, Newcastle and Hull, carrying an estimated 101 million passengers per year on 2,500 daily services.
Arriva, part of German state-owned railway company Deutsche Bahn, has operated the network since 2016.
However, its plans to expand and modernise services, including bringing new trains into operation, have largely failed to materialise with passengers facing repeated delays and cancellations instead.
Shapps said at the beginning of this month that Northern faced being stripped of the franchise due to poor performance. He said it was no longer financially sustainable and would only be able to continue for a small number of months. On Wednesday, the decision was made to place the franchise into the hands of the Department of Transport as the ‘operator of last resort’.
“This is a new beginning for Northern, but it is only a beginning,” Shapps said in a statement to media.
“Northern’s network is huge and complex and some of the things that are wrong are not going to be quick or easy to put right. But I am determined that Northern passengers see real and tangible improvements across the network as soon as possible.”
The decision also marks the “first small step” towards the North taking back control of its railways, Shapps added. “Railways were invented in the North. There will be no more leaving behind.”
Barry White, chief executive of lobby group Transport for the North, described the news as “the chance for a fresh start”, but called for greater investment in rail infrastructure. Among the initiatives that Transport for the North is involved in are Northern Powerhouse Rail, TransPennine Upgrade and HS2.
“This a significant moment,” White said. “It brings with it the chance of greater involvement in the way we deliver connectivity across the region and as we adopt recommendations from both the Blake Jones and forthcoming Williams reviews.
“However, essential infrastructure is needed to reach the levels of performance and reliability we need, and we now need to see early commitment and accelerated delivery from Government.
“The DfT has said it recognises the importance of planning for future growth and enhancements. We want to work in partnership with the operator on the development and delivery of our long-term vision.”
David Mathias, a planning and environment partner at law firm Shoosmiths in Manchester, said: “While today’s announcement might result in more disruption in the short term, it is welcomed as Northern has been a consistently poor performer.
“However if the Government is truly committed to ‘levelling—up’ transport infrastructure in the North it will need to do more than axe one of its failing train service operators. Very significant investment into the physical rail infrastructure network in the North is necessary to increase capacity and reliability for regional commuters.
“The Government has been noticeably quiet on Northern Powerhouse rail recently, with HS2 taking a lot of the headlines, but this needs to be put front and centre of the agenda if we want to deliver substantial improvements to interconnectivity between Northern cities.”