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

Grant Shapps. Image: Getty.

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.

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


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

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While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

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Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).