Is Northern totally to blame for Harrogate rail problems - special report

Harrogate rail passengers accustomed to a poor service on the Harrogate-Leeds line will be encouraged by news that a decision on whether troubled rail operator Northern will be taken into public ownership will be made before the end of the month.

Friday, 10th January 2020, 2:53 pm
Harrogate railway station.

The announcement was made by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on a visit to the Yorkshire Evening Post offices in Leeds this week.

Mr Shapps said: "To clarify, the current financial position of the Northern franchise will not impact on the railway’s day-to-day operations," Mr Shapps said in his statement. "Services will continue to run and there will be no impact on staff."

Does that mean Northern will lose its franchise?

The surprising answer is 'no'.

Mr Shapps told the YEP that a decision would be made between a fresh short-term contract for the operating company Arriva, or a temporary nationalisation via the Department for Transport's Operator of Last Resort, on January 29.

In fact, losing the franchise entirely is not something all local transport leaders necessarily even want to see happen to Northern.

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Lead, told the Yorkshire Evening Post : “Today we reiterated to the Secretary of State our view that moving from Northern to the Operator of Last Resort would secure the best outcome for passengers in the short term.

"The North will only have the modern reliable rail service we need and deserve with fundamental reform and investment to address the capacity crisis on the network."

The bigger question, perhaps, is what has caused Northern's much-criticised performance?

Why does it at times struggle with a shortage of trained drivers?

And this leads to the question as whether the situation is entirely one of their own making - and whether a better service is likely to be delivered by anyone on a playing field set, ultimately, by national government.

Northern, part of German-owned Arriva UK, has apologised to angry rail passengers but it has also defended itself by pointing to the context it has to operate in in terms of rail infrastructure handled by Network Rail and finances affected by everything from the national economy to, again, infrastructure and capacity.

David Brown, managing director at Northern, said: “The Northern franchise has faced several material and unprecedented challenges in the past couple of years, outside the direct control of Northern.

“The most significant of these is the late delivery of major infrastructure upgrades.

“The North West electrification was more than two years late.

New and longer platforms at Leeds stations are delayed, which means we have had to postpone our plans to run longer trains.

“These factors - alongside the damage caused by strike action and lower than expected economic growth - have had a significant effect on the revenue expected."

Even the Harrogate campaigner who has patiently battled for years for a better service for Harrogate passengers has sympathy for Northern's arguments.

Rail campaigner Brian Dunsby OBE of Harrogate Line Passengers Group said the problem was bigger than the performance of Northern, which had been trying hard to improve the situation.

Some of the blame lay with Network Rail’s failure to update infrastructure.

He said: “I am very disappointed but not really surprised that the Government plans to strip Northern Rail of its current franchise in view of recurring complaints about delays and cancellations.

“The current Northern management have worked hard to overcome these problems which have been aggravated by high levels of sickness and industrial action.

“I believe that many of the practical problems are outside the direct control of Northern - particularly the late delivery of new trains from CAF, the cascade of Class 170s from Scotrail and the delayed completion of track improvements by Network Rail."

Ultimately it rail passengers, hit by a national average rise in ticket prices of 2.7% last week, who pay the price of transport failure, no matter where the blame lies.

Arriva UK itself is apologetic but has certainly not given up hope of continuing to run the railways.

Chris Burchell, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains said: “We accept services on the Northern network are not yet good enough and we sincerely apologise to our customers for our role in that.

Mr Burchell said: “Many of the issues affecting the franchise however are outside the direct control of Northern.

"Assumptions were given when the plan for the franchise was developed that critical infrastructure projects would be delivered to enable growth and support capacity demands.

"Many of these have either been delayed or cancelled. This, along with unprecedented levels of strike action, has had a significant impact on the franchise – both in terms of service and financial performance.

“These challenges will continue to affect services irrespective of who is running them.

"What is needed is a new plan, and, in that analysis, we are fully in agreement with Government.

"That is why the Government asked us to prepare a business plan for a shorter ‘Direct Award’."