A rail union has accused Transport Secretary Grant Shapps of distracting from today’s increase in rail fares with cryptic comments about the future of Northern Rail’s franchise.
The under-fire operator has face calls for it to lose its franchise to run services throughout Greater Manchester and the north of England for months due to poor performance.
Mr Shapps was appearing on BBC Breakfast this morning as rail passengers are set to be hit with average fare hikes of 2.7pc from today.
Asked why passengers should accept the increase when fewer than two-thirds of trains were on time last year, Mr Shapps appeared to confirm operator Northern will be stripped of its franchise.
He stated that Northern’s franchise will ‘be brought to an end’ and that he would be saying more about it ‘very soon’
However, he went on to add: “There are a couple of ways that can go. One is to strip the franchise, one if to have a short-term contract.
“But yes exactly as you’ve said, I’m simply not prepared for the service on Northern to carry on as it is and I am taking action.”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport later told the Manchester Evening News that Mr Shapps was reiterating his position that he was ‘started a process’ towards ‘either’ Northern losing its franchise or being issued a short-term contract.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said he was ‘concerned’ that the possibility of Northern having some form of contract was still on the table.
“The Transport Secretary’s comments are welcome and I stand ready to work with him to develop a solution that works for passengers,” Mr Burnham said.
“But I am concerned that he has left on the table the possibility of Northern having a different form of contract.
“That would be a reward for failure and completely unacceptable to us.”
“I call on the Government to rule it out, put our rail services under public control and work with us towards Greater Manchester taking devolved control.
“Today must be the last day when commuters in the North are asked to pay more for a poor service.
“We are fed up of waiting for promised improvements. It has already taken the Government too long to respond to our call for intervention.
“The Transport Secretary must urgently turn his welcome words into action and a clear plan to end the chaos, delays and cancellations.”
Unions also reacted with scepticism to Mr Shapps comments.
Mick Cash, General Secretary of the RMT, said: “Grant Shapps is big on talk about Northern Rail this morning but short on detail and this has all the hallmarks of a dead cat being slung on the table to distract from the fare rise scandal.
“If Grant Shapps was serious he would set out a timetable for removing the Northern Rail franchise from Arriva and their replacement with the public sector operator. I am seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Shapps to pin down the detail and how it affects RMT members and the services they provide.”
In October last year, Mr Shapps told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee that he had issued a “request for proposals” from Northern and the Operator of Last Resort (OLR), which could lead to services being brought into direct government control and run by the OLR.
According to recent reports, the Government has been looking at separating Northern into two franchises and transferred into public ownership in March.
The majority of rail services in Britain are operated under fixed-term franchises, which involve the DfT setting out specifications covering areas such as service levels, upgrades and performance.
Train companies then submit bids to run franchises, with the DfT selecting which applicants are successful.
The Campaign for Better Transport group says passengers have suffered ‘unreliable, expensive, overcrowded trains for too long’ and is calling for this system to be replaced by several models satisfying the different needs of passengers and communities across the network.
Network Rail data shows only 65% of trains arrived at their scheduled station stops within one minute of the timetable in the 12 months to December 7.
South Western Railway passengers suffered from strike action throughout December, while there was major disruption to Northern, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Trains services during much of 2019.
Rail, Maritime and Transport union analysis of company accounts for train operators and three major rolling stock firms showed they have paid out £4.4 billion in dividends to shareholders over the last 10 years.
A DfT spokesperson said: “As the Transport Secretary said, he has started a process which would either strip Northern of its franchise or issue a short-term contract to them.
“We are taking action to ensure passengers in the North get a better service and we will provide an update in due course.”
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