Ministers overrule civil service on Northern rail plan

27 Feb 15
Ministers have gone ahead with plans to replace the Pacer trains on the key rail franchise in the north of England by the end of the decade despite concerns from civil servants over value for money, it has been revealed.

By Richard Johnstone | 27 February 2015

Ministers have gone ahead with plans to replace the Pacer trains on the key rail franchise in the north of England by the end of the decade despite concerns from civil servants over value for money, it has been revealed.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was forced to write a letter of direction to the Department for Transport’s top civil servant Philip Rutnam to go ahead with the plan to ask bidders for Northern rail franchises to replace the 30-year-old Pacer trains on the route.

Under the plans, bidders for the franchise will be required to end the use of these trains by 2020, including through ordering at least 120 new-build carriages.

The requirement was announced by McLoughlin and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg today, with details of the Transpennine Express franchise also set out.

McLoughlin said the new franchises would mean passengers in the north would get a rail service that is fit for the region’s growing economy. Northern runs services across the Northwest, Northeast and Yorkshire, while the trans-Pennine route connects Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

‘Unlike the last Northern franchise in 2004, which included limited plans to invest in services or meet demand, this deal will maintain investment and grow to fit the needs of passengers for years to come,’ McLoughlin added.

‘Together with the £1bn investment we are making to improve the region’s railways and our plans to link east and west through HS3, our railways are making the region an economic powerhouse.’

However, it was announced that Rutnam, the DfT’s permanent secretary, told McLoughlin on February 26 that as accounting officer he had concerns over the value for money of the franchise terms to replace all Pacer trains.

In his direction to proceed, McLoughlin insisted there were wider issues to consider ‘which I accept fall outside the remit of the Accounting Officer but that I consider are material’.

He added: ‘In particular, as you mention yourself, the use of Pacers has a negative impact on the reputation of rail services in the Northern area. I do not consider that the continued use of these uncomfortable and low quality vehicles is compatible with our vision for economic growth and prosperity in the north. I think that a more comprehensive approach is needed to transforming tail in the north, and that the withdrawal of the Pacers by 2020 is a vital part of this.’

Bidders have already been shortlisted for the two franchises. For the Northern franchise, these are rail firms Abellio, Arriva and Govia, while for the TransPennine route it is FirstGroup, Keolis and Stagecoach.

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