The North West is to be delivered a ‘world-class’ rail service after the Government franchised northern rail commitments to Arriva Rail North and First TransPennine Express.
An investment of £1.2billion is set to be poured into northern rail infrastructure over the next eight years ‘to bring the Northern Powerhouse to life’ – with Manchester at the heart of improvements.
The move will see more than 500 new carriages introduced and in excess of 2,000 new services a week, providing transport for 40,000 extra passengers.
The Government is describing the investments as the ‘biggest transformation to rail journeys in decades’.
And Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin predicted that the plans would close the ‘economic gap’ between the North and the South.
“This deal, and the joint management of the franchises, will bring the Northern Powerhouse to life,” he said.
“We promised passengers in the North West a world-class rail service that would make the Northern Powerhouse a reality and I’m delighted that we have found two operators that will deliver exactly that.
“As a one nation government we are committed to closing the economic gap between north and south.
“In 2004, the last time these contracts were awarded, the government did not plan for growth – today we’ve put that right.
“Arriva Rail North Limited and First Trans Pennine Express Limited went far beyond our requirements with exciting, ambitious plans that will make a real difference to customers.
“This will help the region realise its full economic potential, ensuring it has a modern 21st century transport system. This is fantastic news for the North West.”
First have retained he contract for the TransPennine route, whilst Arriva have taken the Northern route from its previous holder, Northern Rail.
But despite the promising signs, First have stated that new carriages may not be operational until 2019, whilst there are no explicit promises to lower ticket prices.
However, Sir Richard Leese, chair of the Association of Rail North Partner Authorities, said that the announcements are a clear response to feedback from passengers.
“This is another crucial move towards devolution for the North,” he said.
“Rail North will now play a key role in the management and development of both new franchises, providing an excellent platform for further development and full devolution in the future.
“Rail North will work very closely with Transport for the North to drive forward economic growth by developing visionary proposals to deliver radically improved connectivity across the north.”
Specific improvements will include ‘newer’ trains for Bolton, a ‘high-quality’ Northern Connect service connecting the North West and Cumbria, a 59% increase in seat numbers on rush hour trains into Manchester and Liverpool and six trains an hour between Manchester and Leeds from 2017.
The move will be seen as an important step for the Government, and its success will be intrinsically linked to that of George Osborne’s flagship Northern Powerhouse scheme to connect the North.
However, with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party leading calls for the nation’s rail networks to be renationalised, pressure will be on for the scheme to bring down ticket prices, as well as providing higher quality services.
FirstGroup Chief Executive Tim O’Toole said that he was confident the move would help ‘communities prosper across the region’, whilst Chris Burchell, Managing Director of Arriva’s UK Trains division, said his companies aim was ‘to leave a positive legacy for the North of England’.