Rail operators told to improve or risk losing franchises


Rail operators in the North of England have come under fire from political leaders and been told they need to “buck up” their performances or risk having their franchises removed.

Rail chiefs from TransPennine Express (TPE) and Northern faced a grilling at a meeting in Leeds after recent poor services across the network.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham called for a public deadline for TPE to improve its services while a Northern rail boss admitted its franchise plan had become “undeliverable”.

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Two meetings were held in the city on Wednesday to address the issues as Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Commons that the Government is looking at the performance of various franchise holders across the rail network.

Bosses from TPE and Northern appeared at a Rail North Committee (RNC) meeting, where they were criticised for recent delays and cancellations, which committee members said had left passengers stranded on platforms.

The rail operators blamed a mixture of factors on the poor performance over the last couple of months, including infrastructure, delays in the delivery of new trains, extreme weather and “unprecedented” levels of sickness.

Mr Burnham said: “We are not prepared any longer to put up with, the people of our region are not prepared to put up with, the misery inflicted on their lives.”

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Mr Burnham added: “For TransPennine, it’s kind of last-chance saloon.”

The Greater Manchester mayor also accused Northern of making “broken promise after broken promise”.

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Chris Burchell, managing director at Arriva, which operates the Northern franchise, admitted trust had been “tested to the extreme” and said a new plan was needed to deliver reliable railways in the north.

He said: “The original franchise plan has effectively become undeliverable.”

Rail chiefs from TPE, Arriva, First Rail and Northern Rail apologised “unreservedly” for their recent performance as RNC members described services as “shoddy” and a “shambles”.

RNC chairman Liam Robinson told them he did not want to be in the same situation this time next year.

He said: “You really do need to buck up your ideas.”

He continued: “We don’t want to and never will accept any more apologies for poor performances. That really does need to improve. If not, we will be asking for a different organisation to come in and run rail services.”

The meeting came as the Prime Minister told the Commons that ministers are “developing contingency plans for a replacement for Northern rail”.

At a Transport for the North board meeting on Wednesday afternoon, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris – who attended in place of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – confirmed that the Government was “near the end game” of a legal process to decide the future of Northern rail services.

He said: “I think we can expect to see a significant change very soon.”

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Mr Heaton-Harris added: “We are doing what we need to do legally to make sure we deliver the right decision for passengers and people who work on these railways going forward.”

Office of Rail and Road figures show just 56% of Northern trains arrived at stations within one minute of the timetable in the 12 months to December 7, compared with the average across Britain of 65%.

On Monday, TPE offered a 3% refund to season ticket holders, saying that its performance was “not up to scratch” at the end of last year.

Mr Heaton-Harris said Mr Shapps has asked to meet with TPE to discuss its recent performance, which the Department for Transport (DfT) described as “completely unacceptable”.

He added that the Transport Secretary would discuss Northern’s franchise when he visits Leeds on Thursday.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

The discussions about Northern and TPE came as other rail operators’ franchises were called into question.

The Prime Minister also suggested in the Commons that West Midlands Trains could lose its franchise after its performance was described by an MP as “absolutely woeful”.

And the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) has called for an urgent meeting with the Government over the future of South Western Railway, after the company declared losses of £137 million.

The train operator said it was having “constructive discussions” with the DfT over potential remedies for the franchise.