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Northern rail could be renationalised, as transport secretary says late services 'cannot continue'

David Brown, managing director at Norther, blamed strikes and poor track maintenance by Network Rail. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The troubled train operator Northern rail could be renationalised because of long-running concerns over late services, the transport secretary has said.

Grant Shapps told MPs the government was considering stripping Northern rail of its franchise and having a state-owned operator takeover.

Northern runs 2,800 services a day and more than 500 stations, including Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough.

Speaking to the commons transport committee, Mr Shapps confirmed that the so-called “Operator of Last Resort” (OLR) – the state operator which takes over failing rail companies – had been approached, the first step towards nationalisation.

Standards of punctuality across the Northern network, “cannot continue”, he said.

The OLR began running East Coast Main Line services in June last year under the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) brand, after Virgin Trains East Coast was stripped of the contract.

Speaking to the cross-party committee, Mr Shapps said he checked the percentage of Northern’s on time-services:

Northern’s current performance sits at 57%, literally just better than one in two chance of a train arriving on time.

That has actually fallen in the last six months from 61% in March, while the UK average sits at 65.1%

Nearly two-thirds of all trains arrive on time but if you’re on Northern it’s not much over half. That is a gap.

– Grant Shapps, transport secretary
Transport secretary Grant Shapps arriving in Downing Street last month Credit: PA Images

Northern is run by the German state-owned firm Arriva. The franchise runs until March 2025. Mr Shapps said that this was only the “first phase” of the process.

If Northern is stripped of the franchise, it would be the second rail renationalisation by a Conservative government, after the LNER decision last year.

The railways were privatised in the mid-1990s by the Major government. Private companies now bid for the contract to operate different lines.

The Department for Transport issued a statement explain that it is "developing contingency plans" for replacing the franchise with a new short-term management contract with northern or the OLR.