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Northern rail nationalised as government admits privatisation 'struggling to deliver'

Tom McArthur
Page editor
A Northern train at Leeds Train Station as it is announced that the Northern Rail franchise will only be able to continue "for a number of months". (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rail routes operated by Northern are to be taken into public ownership, the government has announced, admitting Britain’s privatised rail network was “struggling to deliver.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps called the announcement a “new beginning”, after confirming the Northern rail franchise would be taken into public ownership from 1 March.

He said the UK government would step in as an “operator of last resort” on the route, which has been hit by significant delays, infrastructure setbacks, and strikes.

Almost half of Northern trains failed to arrive within a minute of their due date last year, according to Office of Rail and Road figures.

Northern has blamed the problems on issues outside its “direct control,” such as major infrastructure upgrades running behind schedule and delays in the provision of new trains.

Shapps said in a written statement to parliament re-nationalising the routes was the “first step towards the north taking back control,” and said there were plans to devolve more powers over transport locally.

“The public-sector operator is a company entirely owned by my department and run by experienced railway managers,” Shapps wrote. “It already owns and oversee another franchise, East Coast, which it brands as London North Eastern Railway.”

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He said it was “clear that the current model is now struggling to deliver” and admitted his decision would “inevitably raise questions about the future of rail privatisation.”

Shapps said rail privatisation since the 1990s had “reversed two decades of declining passenger numbers” but acknowledged that “change is needed, and it is coming”.

“The Williams Review is looking at reforms across the railway to ensure customers are at the heart of the system,” Shapps wrote.

“Northern’s network is huge and complex, some of the things which are wrong are not going to be quick or easy to put right.”

The government has asked Robin Gisby and Richard George, who lead Northern’s new public-sector operator, to prepare a plan in their first 100 days. It will be a “top to bottom review” of issues from management to customer experience.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted Wednesday: “About time. Delays & cancellations under Northern Rail have been getting worse and worse and worse.”

Tim Farron MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for the north of England, said: “For far too long, people across the north of England have suffered a substandard service.”

Mariane O’Sullivan, a policy adviser for the North East England Chamber of Commerce, said issues with railways in the North were “mainly down to decades of lack of investment in infrastructure”.

“Any improvements to this service will need substantial investment from the Government not just a change in the franchising agreement,” O’Sullivan said.