Northern mayors and council leaders have called for deadlines and final demands to be issued to the operators of the region’s unreliable rail services on pain of losing the franchise.
Sub-national transport body Transport for the North (TfN) agreed on Wednesday to press ministers to terminate the Northern Rail franchise, as well as setting a deadline for Transpennine Express to improve services or lose its contract.
It also supported the expansion of Manchester Piccadilly station.
However officers behind the scenes in TfN also found major issues with regional infrastructure that had hampered the train operating companies' (TOC) progress.
A meeting of the Rail North Committee saw ‘strong and pointed discussions’, with politicians grilling bosses from both firms and making it clear that ‘promises can no longer be broken.’ TfN said.
This was followed by a meeting of the TfN Board, which discussed what ‘advice’ it should give transport secretary Grant Shapps ‘on infrastructure enhancements in the Manchester area to support wider rail reliability’.
As TfN has pointed out, despite its statutory status, its main role is to advise ministers on transport decisions affecting the region.
A report to the TfN board revealed that not all of the issues are of theTOC's making.
Current infrastructure in Central Manchester ‘does not support all the services that have been committed in the Northern franchise,' the document said.
This means that some train services 'that have been contracted in the current franchises are not able to operate; and services that do run have far lower reliability than is required, both in Manchester and across the north of England’.
The paper added that Network Rail has concluded that with no single solution to cross-Manchester congestion, ‘the strategic choices are: investment in the infrastructure; some reduction to the train service; or accept the very poor reliability that is a consequence of using the existing infrastructure so intensively’.
iT also noted that some ‘Northern Hub’ works due in Control Period 5 (2014 – 2019) such as works to enable 16 trains per hour to run on the Castlefield corridor, including two additional through platforms (15 and 16) at Manchester Piccadilly have not yet been started and are awaiting ministerial approval.
Attending the meeting on behalf of Mr Shapps, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris reportedly said that the transport secretary ‘understands the need for investment in Manchester bottleneck that is delaying trains’ and that consideration of the process to consider the Northern franchise ‘is nearing completion and could be a matter of weeks away’.
On Thursday, Mr Shapps said in a written statement that he planned to announce his decision by the end of the month.
He reminded MPs that his ongoing consideration of whether to replace the Northern franchise with a short-term management contract under existing operator Arriva Rail North (ARN) or whether the DfT would have to step in as an operator of last resort was ‘triggered by concern over the financial position of ARN’.
He stated: ‘It has now been confirmed to me from the most recent available financial information that the franchise will only be able to continue for a number of months.’