COMMENT FROM THE ARCHIVES: Is an OLR really the answer?

  • This Comment was published in RAIL 891 (November 6-November 19 2019).

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose - the more things change, the more they stay the same. Coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Kerr in the 19th century, this will almost certainly be the case for the Northern franchise, regardless of how it’s run in the future either by Arriva or by the Operator of Last Resort (OLR) - just like East Coast.

Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps’ admission that the Department for Transport has asked both Arriva (which has operated Northern since April 1 2016) and the OLR to deliver plans to run a Direct Award is a sure sign that even Government realises change is needed. And Government specified the franchise!

Change is certainly needed on Northern. Even Managing Director David Brown told RAIL: “The original 2016 franchise plan is not achievable, and the SoS has recognised that.”

Problems include: Pacers will still be bouncing their way between Manchester and Sheffield next year (by which time they should have been scrapped); trains will still be delayed by congestion through the Castlefield Corridor and on the approaches to Leeds;
diesel units will still be running where electrics were promised; and overcrowded services will still arrive at the region’s major cities each morning (and take the same
frustrated commuters home in the evening).

Rewind almost 18 months to the May 2018 timetable chaos, when hundreds of trains were cancelled each day, and it all illustrates the necessity of making major decisions affecting one of the UK’s largest geographic franchises.

Regional politicians also continue to wade in with (at times) self-serving criticisms, particularly about Northern. Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis suggests that fares should be reduced for passengers riding on Pacers (his area will be home to the 23 Class 144s until May 17 next year, and ‘142s’ will rattle across from Manchester). But will he call for fares to rise when new trains are introduced?

Transport for the North, Britain’s first sub-national transport body, co-manages the Northern franchise with the DfT. Its Strategic Rail Director David Hoggarth is on record as saying: “In order to rebuild confidence with the travelling public, we are of the view that, should it be necessary, putting in an OLR would be the only feasible solution for any interim arrangement.”

Performance has deteriorated badly. The website shows that when Arriva took over, performance was at 93.8% on-time running, whereas for the corresponding period three years later it was at 88.9%. The latest period available, for most of October, records on-time running at a really poor 76.5%. However, what it doesn’t show is that an extra 2,000 trains per week are now operating - over and above the franchise commitment.

RAIL interviewed Northern Managing Director David Brown on October 28. He ‘held his hands up’ and admitted that things must improve, and that there need to be improvements from the business side.

However, what is missing from almost all calls for Arriva to be stripped of Northern is an acknowledgment that the problems the franchise has inherited are mostly out of its control. Even if the structure is changed, the underlying problems are still mostly in the hands of others.

The franchise was bid for against a backdrop of proposals for two new through platforms at Manchester Piccadilly. Without these, the new Ordsall Chord creates more problems than it solves because it feeds trains into the already overcrowded Castlefield Corridor - where they must fight for paths with Northern, TPE, East Midlands Railway and Transport for Wales services, as well as freight running to and from Trafford Park.

The bid was also made on the assumption that electrification of the North West (launched by then-SoS Andrew Adonis in 2009) would be complete. Ten years later… it’s not. And the throat at Leeds, allowing improved access and capacity increases at Platforms 4-6 and 13-17, has not been completed, causing congestion.

When Arriva took over the franchise in 2016, there was much fanfare that the Pacers (the 1980s short-term solution which are responsible for the continued use of some branches in northern England) would all be withdrawn by the end of the decade.

What would the Mayors prefer: for Northern to ‘renege on its promise’ and keep trains running, or cancel services to keep its commitment regarding the Pacers?

Soon after April 2016, Northern agreed a £500 million deal with Spanish manufacturer CAF to build 98 trains. These would be the first new trains for the franchise in any of its various iterations since the Class 333s were introduced in 2001 in West Yorkshire.

But as with many new trains, the CAF fleet has proven troublesome in its introduction, and plans for a December 2018 start were put on hold with the first sets only entering service in July this year. This meant Northern had to retain Pacers.

On the same day that Shapps was announcing that an OLR might take over at Northern, the DfT was releasing its Rail Enhancements Pipeline. The promised infrastructure upgrades were all listed, but with no real progress outlined. And yet the politicians were still out there (clearly ignorant of how the industry actually works), stating it would be for the best if Arriva was stripped of the franchise

The day after Shapps’ announcement, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham was calling the timetable between Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road ‘flawed’, and that he would change it. He failed to mention (or is unaware) that that’s not his responsibility, but Network Rail’s.

Brown at least offers possible solutions: “We cannot just wait for the big schemes - for example, Northern Powerhouse Rail. We have to get some modest regional schemes done where there are congestion pinch points. For example, there would be merit in a turnback siding at Manchester Victoria. We would also like to see additional electrification on Victoria-Stalybridge or Victoria-Rochdale.”

Burnham is keen to tweet that Northern needs to be stripped of the franchise. But when I asked his team on October 29 how that would change the current situation, what his views on TPE’s performance were, and how an OLR with the same management would suddenly improve things, I was told: “The questions on rail franchise matters are best directed to TfN/DfT.”

That sums up the situation perfectly. 6,000 Northern staff, including the current management, would transfer to the OLR… as would all the problems that make their jobs harder.

Political point-scoring is not what’s needed for Northern. What we really need are reasoned and effective leaders, not politicians simply chasing votes.

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