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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.