Is the balloon about to go up? Speculation is rife that the government is finally about to scrap the struggling Northern Rail franchise, after Boris Johnson told yesterday’s Prime Ministers’ Question Time: “We are developing contingency plans for a replacement for Northern Rail”. He also, while on the subject, said that the government was “looking at the whole way the franchising system operates”.
In some ways there’s no new information here – Johnson is just echoing what transport secretary Grant Shapps said last week. But the fact the PM himself is saying it, and so soon, is a sign the government is seriously planning to move on this. It might not be today, or this week, or next – but Northern Rail’s current contract can’t be long for this world.
The only slight problem here is – this won’t fix the northern rail network. A large chunk of the network’s problem isn’t bad management (though there’s no doubt been plenty of that too), but shoddy infrastructure. And the power to fix that lies not with the beleaguered train operating company, but in the government’s own hands.
In 2014, then Chancellor George Osborne did what he did best, donning some high vis clothing, to announce the “Northern Hub”, a £600m programme of rail investment. Here’s a map:
When first discussed in 2009, this project had been known as the Manchester Hub, on the fairly reasonable grounds that much of the work involved was in central Manchester. But the coalition re-branded it – partly to bring it in line with the Northern Powerhouse policy, partly because fixing the bottleneck in Manchester would allow more trains to run right across the region’s rail network, from Cheshire to Tyneside.
One key element of this scheme - the Castlefield, or Ordsall, Curve, which allows trains to run between Piccadilly and Victoria stations - had already received funding in 2011, and was completed in late 2017, when I got to have a go on it. But properly fixing the bottleneck would also require two new through platforms at Piccadilly, and work at Oxford Road station so that it could take longer trains. Without this work, there’s a limit on the number of trains that can run.
And even though all this passed all the necessary public enquiries as long ago as 2015, the work hasn’t happened. Let’s hear from Jen Williams at the Manchester Evening News, writing on Tuesday, to bring the story up to date:
A pan-northern meeting of council chiefs will hear tomorrow how the delayed expansion of both stations has been a ‘key’ cause of the chaos that has been crippling the north’s network.
They will also hear that the opening of the £85m Ordsall Chord link through Castlefield, an investment regularly celebrated by ministers, has actually made the overall situation worse - because it was not coupled with the rest of the investment originally proposed.
The result of all this is:
The beleaguered Northern rail franchise, let in 2016, was designed for an improved corridor that didn’t materialise.
In other words, whatever the failings of Northern Rail management in working with its staff, ensuring there are enough trains available and so on, it was always doomed to failure: it had been given a timetable that the network couldn’t handle.
A report going before Transport for the North says there are only three choices now facing government: pay for the infrastructure, cut train services or accept ‘the very poor reliability’ that comes from running current number of services through the existing bottleneck.
So far, ministers don’t seem keen to pursue any of these options. They haven’t stumped up for the infrastructure, and for fairly obvious reasons they don’t seem likely to tell passengers that they have to lump it. Instead, they’ve found a fourth option, which won’t fix the network but will get them off the hook: talk up plans to scrap Northern Rail’s contract, and thus force the train operator to carry the can.
Treating private companies as scapegoats has a long history on the British rail network – there’s an argument, indeed, that this was basically what rail privatisation was for. The question is what the government does next. If it finds the estimated £800m needed to complete the Northern Hub project it might be able to fix this mess. If not, though, northern rail passengers are likely in for more misery – no matter who runs the trains.