Rail franchising! Does any topic get people more excited? In pubs and saloons up and down the country, people are clustered around tables, excitedly discussing Invitations to Tender, Passenger Service Requirements and non-compliant bids!
No? Just me, then.
The government yesterday announced that the Northern franchise had been won by Arriva (owned by German state railway operator Deutsche Bahn). They had beaten out Abellio (owned by Dutch state railway operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen) and Govia (70% owned by French state railway operator SNCF). Remember, state ownership of railways is bad, unless it’s a foreign state.
Arriva have a long shopping list of improvements, and it’s long overdue. The north’s rail services have suffered ever since the boneheaded decision by the Department for Transport, back in 2004 under Labour, to let the Northern franchise on a “zero-growth” basis. In other words, the civil servants assumed there would be little or no growth in passengers and revenue, so no additional rolling stock or services were planned.
In fact, it seems that the DfT at the time wanted to perpetuate the “managed decline” of the railway. A report was even commissioned to look for possible cost savings, and speculation mounted that lines or stations could be closed. Much to the disappointment, I’m sure, of some DfT mandarins, the report concluded that the franchise was efficiently run, and even closing the famed “limited service” routes like Ellesmere Port to Helsby (four trains a day), Stockport to Staybridge (one train a week) and Chester to Runcorn (eight trains a year) would save almost no money.
Contrary to expectations, passenger numbers have boomed over the past decade, and the service has struggled to cope. Northern has been forced to beg, borrow and steal whatever trains it can find. A load of Sprinter trains were blagged from London Midland, and pressed into service still adorned with Network West Midlands logos. More recently, some electric trains were procured from Thameslink (and this time, at least, overhauled and repainted) for the newly-electrified routes from Liverpool to Manchester and
It’s still very common, however, to find commuters crammed into too-short trains, many of which are essentially the same as those which worked these lines back in the 1980s and 1990s under British Rail. Worst of all are the “Pacers”, Leyland National bus bodies bolted onto a 4-wheeled chassis, which have all the comfort and ambience of a shopping trolley. It’s clear that things needed to change, and the Government franchise documents made it clear that maintaining the status quo was not an option.
We are promised 281 new carriages and new routes connecting destinations were previously a change of train was needed. It remains to be seen whether this will come to pass as advertised. Arriva’s previous form on railway operations is… ahem, varied. It ranges from the good (Chiltern Railways) to the bad (CrossCountry) to the very, very ugly (the original Arriva Trains Northern).
The press release on Wednesday was full of optimism. Is there bad news buried that we have yet to find? Will there be fare increases or staff cuts? Will this be a bold new start for the Northern Powerhouse (ugh) or will we be knocking on Serco’s door, begging for our Pacers back? Time will tell.