This paper provides an overview of the current rail system, including how it is delivered and how it performed and was financed up until the spring of 2020 when the UK locked down in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. It explains the impact of the pandemic on services and funding and sets out reforms to rail passenger services (franchises) as a result of the pandemic. The final section discusses the Williams Rail Review, initiated in 2018 and yet to report publicly, setting out the emerging conclusions and key questions to be answered.
This debate will take place between 2.30 and 4.00 pm on 6 June in Westminster Hall. The Member who secured the debate is Sir David Crausby MP (Lab., Bolton North East).
MPs can find Parliamentary questions, statements and debates on Northern Rail via this link.
The Northern Rail franchise
Operating name: Northern
Franchisee: Arriva UK Trains, owned by Deutsche Bahn
Franchise start and end dates: April 2016 – March 2025
Financial information: in 2016/17 Northern received a net franchise payment of £279 million and overall, once revenue payments, network grant etc. were taken into account, received a subsidy of £649.8 million, equating to a subsidy of 24.7 pppkm (pence per passenger km).
When the franchise was awarded in 2015 it was intended to deliver the following commitments:
… the complete removal of the outdated and unpopular Pacers by the end of 2019, and will invest £400 million in 281 brand new air-conditioned carriages – more than double the minimum required in the government’s invitation to tender …
Other improvements on the Northern network include:
- more than 2,000 extra services each week, with around 400 additional Sunday services, including new direct journeys from Bradford to Wakefield, Sheffield, Nottingham, Liverpool and Hull; from Leeds to Chester and Bridlington; from Lincoln to Leeds; and from Manchester Airport to Warrington, Bradford and Halifax
- nearly a 40% increase in capacity – creating space for 31,000 extra passengers travelling into the 5 major commuter cities (Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle) of the north during the morning rush-hour
- a new high-quality ‘Northern Connect’ service, meaning new or refurbished trains on longer-distance services, faster journeys and stations staffed daily with catering services and free Wi-Fi at each one – as well as serving the 5 major commuter cities, this network will also serve other destinations including Bradford, Halifax, Blackburn, Accrington, Burnley, Lincoln, Worksop and Retford
- improved ticketing, including mobile and print-at-home tickets, and discounted fares for jobseekers
All train companies have performance standards set out in their Franchise Agreements (FAs). In the FA for Northern these are set out in Schedule 7. It is incredibly detailed and complex – the actual measures for each reporting period are set out in the appendices to Schedule 7.1.
If the train company breaches these performance standards there are a number of sanctions available to the Government (set out in Schedule 10), ranging from a remedial plan to a penalty to termination of the franchise. Because the FA is a commercial contract between parties, the Government cannot act ‘arbitrarily’ with regards to the franchise and has to keep within the letter of the contract. ‘Termination events’ are defined in Schedule 10.3 as follows:
- any Force Majeure Event continues with the effect of preventing the Franchisee from delivering, wholly or mainly, the Passenger Services for more than six consecutive months;
- the warranty given by the Franchisee pursuant to paragraph 6.1 of Schedule 12 (Financial Obligations and Covenants) is materially untrue;
- the Franchisee commits a material breach of its obligation to notify the Secretary of State of any Occasion of Tax Non-Compliance; or
- the Franchisee fails to provide details of proposed mitigating factors, which in the reasonable opinion of the Secretary of State, are acceptable.
‘Force Majeure Events’ are defined in Schedule 10.4(1) and broadly include:
- the Franchisee being prevented or restricted by Network Rail from gaining access to any section or part of track or from entering or leaving any station or depot;
- events related to rolling stock resulting in either 2+ rolling stock units or 10% of the franchisee’s vehicles being unavailable for use;
- restricting the operation of any train on safety grounds;
- ‘Emergency Events’, e.g. act of God, war damage, terrorism, riot, civil commotion or rebellion; and
There are two main electrification packages for the north – the ‘North West Triangle’ and TransPennine electrification. The electrification plans for the North West initially involved spending over £1 billion over five years to electrify over 300km of track to improve connections between towns and cities including Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Blackpool. These plans are now folded into what Network Rail calls its Great North Rail Project (GNRP).
Network Rail is working to complete the upgrade of the 25 mile stretch of track between Manchester and Preston. The project was due to complete in December 2017 but was delayed for a number of reasons. There were reports that the works would not be complete until October 2018 with trains not running until December. The delays in delivering this electrification project have impacted the delivery of the new timetable by Northern Rail (see section below). On 24 May the Minister, Jesse Norman, explained:
Let me turn now to the timetable. Northern has planned for some time to introduce these changes in two phases—one in December 2017 and the other in May 2018, with the latter being larger and more relevant. These were supposed to be underpinned by planned line speed improvements and electrification of the route between Manchester and Preston […] this electrification did not take place on schedule and that had all of these knock-on effects, and of course, in a network, knock-on effects themselves have knock-on effects and the result creates further disruption.
The effect of the delays to the completion of the Manchester to Preston upgrade meant that Northern had to move some of its service enhancements to a later date. Further service enhancements for Northern and TransPennine Express are planned for introduction from the end of this year through until 2020 […] As a result, although the operators will be delivering an increase of 1,300 new services a week from May 2018, 900 services a week—disappointingly for customers—will not be delivered until the infrastructure is ready…
It became apparent in the early part of this year that the electrification process would not be completed on schedule […] This required a lot of rethinking and rejigging by Northern.
On TransPennine electrification, the situation at present is unclear. On 25 April the Rail Minister, Jo Johnson, summarised the Government’s policy thus:
The Government remains committed to improving services on the Transpennine line. However, electrifying the line alone would not deliver the capacity and customer improvements which passengers are demanding. We are currently working with Rail North and Network Rail to develop very significant improvements for rail passengers on the route with phased introduction from December 2022. These could be the result of investment in new trains, electrification or other infrastructure work.
The Transport for the North draft Strategic Transport Plan would seem to support this. It states that TfN is “committed to electrification where it delivers benefits, but will take advantage of new technology to improve journeys. Although an important scheme, the TransPennine Route Upgrade cannot deliver the transformation in journey times and capacity that TfN is seeking for the longer term”.
- Further background on rail electrification projects can be found in HC Library briefing paper CBP 5907.
Recent timetable changes and service issues
On 16 May the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, wrote to the Sub-National Transport Body, Transport for the North (co-manager of the Northern rail franchise with DfT) highlighting a series of missed deadlines and examples of serial poor performance. He called on TfN to formally to assess whether Northern is in breach of its franchise agreement. Mayor Burnham subsequently expressed fresh concerns about Northern’s operations following information from a whistleblower. TfN said it was “extremely disappointed and concerned with the inadequate performance of Northern” and said that it had “requested an improvement plan to return performance to an acceptable level for passengers and will be meeting Northern to discuss this further”.
The problems on Northern were exacerbated on 21 May when the new timetable began operation, leading to system-wide delays and cancellations. Northern said:
It has been a difficult morning for some of our customers, in particular on a number of routes around north Manchester extending up to Blackpool, and we are very sorry for the delays and cancellations they have experienced.
[…] The May 2018 timetable change, which went live today for commuters, has seen around 90% of our services change and an extra 1,300 train services a week introduced across our network, the biggest change to local rail for many years. This remains a significant operational challenge and we continue to expect some localised service disruption, which could happen at very short-notice.
This resulted, on 23 May, in the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, announcing that Northern had submitted a timetable recovery plan to tackle disruption to services following the timetable change. Measures in the plan include:
- improving driver rostering to get more trains running;
- increasing driver training on new routes to get more services on line as quickly as possible;
- additional contingency drivers and management presence at key locations in Manchester; and
- putting extra peak services in the timetable along the Bolton corridor, including between Buckshaw and Manchester Victoria, and Preston and Manchester Oxford Road.
There was a short Parliamentary debate on the issue the following day, 24 May. The Minister, Jesse Norman, said in that once the immediate problems have passed there would be long-term positive impacts:
By 2020, there will be more than 2,500 extra services a week with room for 40,000 extra passengers, and these will be, by and large, faster and more comfortable journeys, with new and direct services across the north and beyond. Indeed, this week’s timetable change, although we have properly and appropriately focused on the negative feedback that has occurred, has also been one that has delivered an extra 1,682 train services a week across the network.
He also said that DfT was “monitoring the situation very carefully” and that “if these teething problems are not resolved in the coming days, the [government] will hold the industry to account—not merely the operators, but Network Rail itself, which is, I am afraid, at the heart of the problems that we have at the moment”.
However, Mayor Burnham and the Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, have continued to express concerns. There were reports on 25 May that:
Burnham has questioned the views of transport secretary Chris Grayling, following a teleconference call with the leaders in which he said he believed that electrification delays by Network Rail were the root cause of the problem. The Greater Manchester mayor instead believes that Northern are failing to staff services properly and have let down passengers.
It was also reported that Network Rail and Northern will commission an independent report and recommendations into the processes that led up to the timetable change:
Network Rail has acknowledged that it has not delivered an acceptable service, particularly on routes around north Manchester, extending up to Blackpool. The planned report will therefore examine the preparations and processes leading up to the implementation of the change, with customer groups, transport and Northern stakeholders all invited to contribute.
Martin Frobisher, managing director of Network Rail’s London North Western route, said: “We recognise how tough it has been for customers, particularly since the May timetable change last weekend and we’re sorry for that. We are working hard with Northern to get service back to where it needs to be. We will work as one team to achieve this.”
According to Frobisher, the independent report will ensure that lessons are learned – with no repeats of the current problems as preparations are made for the next major timetable review in December.
On 4 June Northern introduced a temporary timetable that removes 165 train services a day until 29 July. On the same day the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement to the House of Commons in which he said that “the industry remained of the view until the last moment that it would be able to deliver the changes. That is the bit that everyone will find hard to understand and it is why there has to be a proper investigation into what has taken place”. He continued:
On Northern, which is co-managed through the Rail North Partnership by Transport for the North and my Department, early analysis shows that the key issue was that Network Rail did not deliver infrastructure upgrades in time, in particular the Bolton electrification scheme, with damaging consequences. This forced plans to be changed at a very late stage, requiring a complete overhaul of logistics and crew planning […]
It is also clear to me that both Northern and GTR were not sufficiently prepared to manage a timetable change of this scale … Neither Northern nor GTR had a clear fall-back plan.
In terms of actions to rectify the problems caused he said that:
I have … demanded that Network Rail and the train operator work more collaboratively across the industry to resolve the situation, where necessary by using resources from other train operators to support the recovery effort. Officials in my Department are working around the clock to oversee this process. We have strengthened resources in both the Department and Rail North Partnership, which oversees the Northern franchise, to hold the industry to account for improving services.
On Northern’s temporary timetable, he said:
Northern Rail has agreed an action plan with Rail North Partnership that is focused on improving driver rostering so as to get more trains running as quickly as possible; rapidly increasing driver training on new routes; providing for additional contingency drivers and management presence at key locations in Manchester; and putting extra peak services into the timetable along the Bolton corridor. Work on this action plan has been under way for some time. They have also published temporary timetables that will be more deliverable and will give passengers much more confidence in the reliability of their service. This will mean removing certain services from the new expanded timetable while still ensuring an improvement in the total number of services run by Northern compared to before the timetable change. Alternative arrangements will be made for passengers negatively impacted by the changes. I believe that this temporary measure is necessary to stabilise the service and enable improvements to be introduced gradually.
He also said that there will be a special compensation scheme for those affected:
There must, of course, be a special compensation scheme for passengers on affected routes on both GTR and Northern. In the case of Northern, the scheme will be subject to agreement with the board of Transport for the North, although I doubt that the board will have a problem with it. The purpose of the scheme, which will be introduced and funded by the industry, will be to ensure that regular rail customers receive appropriate redress for the disruption that they have experienced. The industry will set out more details of the eligibility requirements, and of how season ticket holders can claim, but I think it is very important for passengers—particularly in the north, where disruption has been protracted—to be given entitlements similar to those conferred by last year’s Southern passenger compensation scheme.
Finally, he announced his intention to set up an inquiry into the May timetable implementation, to be carried out by the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, led by Professor Stephen Glaister. The final report is expected by the end of 2018 but Mr Grayling will “want to see initial responses much sooner than that”. In parallel to the inquiry the DfT will assess whether Northern met their contractual obligations in the plannign and delivery of the timetable change.
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