Northern Rail stands today as one of the country’s largest train operators. Accounting for 13 per cent of national PPM, it runs 2,500 services per day, more than any other Toc in the country, and calls at 20 per cent of stations in the UK.

‘In the beginning, back in December 2004’, starts Ian, ‘when Abellio and Serco took over the Northern Rail franchise as a joint venture, the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) announced that it was to be a ‘steady-state’ setup. This is a phrase that some could have seen as a burden, but we saw it as a challenge, a red flag to a bull. The SRA saw no reason for more passengers to travel on our network and as such no need to develop additional services or facilities. The Northern Rail franchise you see today is a very different story.’

When the franchise was awarded, the SRA appointed Steer Davies Gleave (SDG) to review all aspects of it and look at how savings could be made. Many held their breath when the findings were announced, rumours of line closures and ‘trains carrying empty air’ had been circulating so it was to everyone’s delight to discover that Northern had continued to develop and improve the overall efficiency and value for money of the franchise through well developed and focused initiatives.

It is these well-developed and focused initiatives that have driven Northern into 2013. Says Bevan: ‘The praise we received from the SDG report helped us set the bar for the rest of the franchise. We had much to prove, not only to our industry partners but also to our passengers – we were very aware that as a heavily subsidised Toc delivering good value for money was something on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

‘Independent research estimates that each year our services generate at least £690 million of economic and other benefits for the UK economy, providing a 2:1 return to the north of England on the subsidy we receive.’

Partnerships with local Passenger Transport Executives (PTE’s) as co-signatories on the franchise agreement allowed Northern to work locally within area teams across the varied network. Delving into the surrounding communities focused these area teams at the heart of the community rail concept.

‘Working with local user groups and building relationships from within the community has helped us reach another level of passenger engagement and tapping into the lifeblood of these communities has helped keep many of our smaller stations at an award–winning level,’ says Bevan. ‘Our Community Ambassador Scheme reaches out to minority groups and helps break down the barriers to local rail travel across the north west including East Lancashire, West Pennines and the Calder Valley.’

Re-investing back into the business

Since 2004, Northern has invested £130 million for its passengers, a sizeable amount considering the confines of its franchise agreement only allowed for £250,000 a year of disabled access improvements. Its shareholders Serco-Abellio helped drive £30 million of this, which was re-invested back into the business with the other £100 million coming from the partnerships and relationships Northern made and maintained with local stakeholders, PTE’s, regional development agencies and councils. ‘It is this investment that has allowed Northern to bring in additional rolling stock, station improvements and roll-out train refurbishments under the shadow of a ‘steady-state’ franchise and to turn it all into considerable customer benefit,’ explains Bevan.

No one could have foreseen the growth in passenger numbers on the Northern network. Its fleet is carrying 42 per cent more customers than in 2004 and demand continues to grow. Symptoms were clear to see at Northern’s five major inter-city hubs: Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, as well as on some rural routes. Northern secured 60 additional carriages as part of the government’s High Level Output Specification (HLOS) which increased the fleet by 10 per cent, adding 2.2 million much needed additional peak seats for passengers every year.

‘The introduction of these additional units in 2011 also saw the re-opening of Allerton Depot in Merseyside,’ says Bevan. ‘Allerton was a triumph for us and the response we had to the project with our partners, Network Rail, was superb. The depot was taken from derelict to fully-operational in six months, requiring 10,000 tonnes of spoil to be replaced with 10,000 tonnes of ballast. Considering the first estimate for completion was three years, it serves to show what can be done if you want to do it. The depot employed an additional 46 people from the Merseyside community and brought the disused site back into use as a sustainable, modern facility.’
Allerton is just one example of where the partnership, or alliance, with Network Rail has resulted in value for money and efficiency improvement and is a text book case for the argument that Toc’s could have a stronger role to play in developing and implementing major projects.

‘The alliance with Network Rail began in 2010, and moves in sync to deliver a better value railway than when operating separately,’ says Bevan. ‘Several initiatives were identified but it was the evolution of Allerton ahead of the formal alliance, which helped prove the real value of a fully-functioning alliance.’

Exciting time for the rail industry

‘It’s an incredibly vibrant and exciting time for the rail industry’ according to Bevan. ‘Significant growth has already been witnessed and more is forecast. Major investments are being announced; everyone is turning their focus on the UK’s railways and now is the time to shine. We have always seen ourselves as custodians of this railway and have a vision for the future of rail in the north which stands alongside the enhanced infrastructure works which are already well underway.

‘With full funding now confirmed, the Northern Hub will deliver significant capacity enhancements. Allowing an extra 700 trains every day it will enable better journey times, frequency and connectivity. Coupled with 300 km of track between Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Blackpool and Leeds being electrified, it’s clear to see the progress already made. These are just some of the schemes delivering capacity enhancements to cater for an expected 23 per cent national growth in passenger and freight demand over the next five years.

‘We’re thrilled to see the electrification work underway,’ says Bevan. ‘We believe the successful delivery of the first stage of the project, along with the proposed fifth path across the Pennines, to be the most efficient use of capacity on the route to help deliver an enhanced rail service for more passengers in the north of England. This year also heralds the start of major refurbishment work in the north west, namely at Manchester Victoria, one of the the busiest stations we manage.’

Recovering performance levels

The recent publication of the National Passenger Survey results was a frustrating time for Northern, which saw customer satisfaction levels down on last year, despite the introduction of new train wash plants and increased staff visibility.

‘We were disappointed with the drop but we know that the punctuality of trains is one of the key concerns and during the survey period our services were affected by some exceptional weather. Since then we have been working hard to recover the performance to levels our passengers rightly expect,’ says Bevan.

‘These results, supported by our own independent customer research and mystery shopping help us identify the changes and improvements our customers really want to see. We’re out and about more than ever these days, talking to passengers at our stations and on-board our trains. We’ve increased our presence on social media, primarily Twitter, in order to get right-time information out to our passengers as quickly as possible.’

Bevan continued: ‘We were encouraged to see the majority of our individual scores improve or remain stable, particularly the cleanliness and overall station environment, cleanliness of the inside of the train, the room available on-board our trains and the helpfulness of our staff at stations, which reflects some of the direct feedback we’ve gathered from our passengers. We know that we can do more to meet their expectations and we’ll be continuing with the refurbishment of our trains including some of our oldest – installing more information screens at stations and improving the quality of information we provide during times of disruption.’

An evolving fleet

Northern inherited an ageing and complex fleet, with 14 types of train now totalling 313 units. This structure of mixed diesels and electrics makes it difficult to interchange vehicles and as such some parts of its network board the same type of unit on a regular basis.

‘Our fleet is something we are constantly working to evolve for passengers,’ says Bevan. ‘So far we have refurbished almost 72 per cent of it and improved reliability by 60 per cent. Our customers in the north east are benefiting from a refurbishment programme of the 142 Pacer units at the moment, a project that for us sees sizeable investment in our fleet to help improve our customers’ journeys.’

It was hard to ignore at the time and now it is official, but the summer of 2012 was the wettest on record and Northern wasn’t the only operator to suffer. Nationwide, the industry experienced some of the most catastrophic conditions in years, conditions which today even warrant their own Wikipedia entry.

‘June and July were extremely difficult times; persistent rain on waterlogged ground led to widespread flooding and line closures for us, even landslides in some areas. Our front line staff coped miraculously during this disruption, especially those deployed to our more rural stations. It was exceptional weather but we saw our people make an outstanding impact.’

Public taking more of an interest in rail

The rail industry has seemed to be in the limelight recently; a definite shift in focus has happened and in the wake of the media buzz surrounding the in’s and out’s of the West Coast franchise, it does seem the British public has taken more of an interest in the industry.

Explains Bevan: ‘Last year we were approached by Century Films, a production company who wanted to do for the railways and train operators what BBC2’s ‘The Tube’ had done for London Underground. It was an exciting opportunity to be able to show their crew the day-to-day on Northern’s network. Our people, our customers, life’s little triumphs and of course, the challenges we face on a daily basis.

‘They worked with three of our employees: Jason, a driver on the Real Ale Trail, Bridie, a conductor on the busy Leeds – Manchester commuter service and Imran, one of our gate-line operatives at Leeds station. No glitz or glamour, the programme told it how it is and we were thrilled with the outcome and delighted with the positive feedback to staff from customers.’

People play an important role in Northern’s accomplishments; with more than 4,900 employees, half of whom are drivers and conductors, spread across the network, staff engagement comes high on the list of priorities.

‘Our aim is to make sure we’re one of the most respected railway companies in the UK when it comes to inclusion,’ says Bevan, ‘and we work just as hard to make sure that our people feel respected too. It’s a two-way relationship that makes every one of us feel socially, ethically and culturally rewarded.

‘We launched a number of forums made up of volunteers across the business to spread the message of diversity and inclusion by promoting, developing and supporting these groups.’

300 per cent rise in female applicants

With women constituting 15 per cent of today’s rail industry, Northern is a member of the Women in Rail group which works to support and encourage the minority in a sector which is historically male-dominated. Since starting out as a virtual forum for women to connect and exchange ideas on the rail industry, the group now raises awareness and engages with supporters of the sector and is set to launch its first event this month, a year after launching online via social networking site LinkedIn.

Says Bevan: ‘A recent recruitment campaign saw a rise of more than 300 per cent in the number of female applicants putting themselves forward to drive trains across the north of England, and since 2009 we’ve seen a growth in female applicants across the business, from 11 to 15.5 per cent. We’re committed to changing the traditional perception of the rail industry as an employer and have made it a priority to introduce more diversity across the industry.’

There has never been a brighter future for rail in the north of England – the extension of Northern’s franchise to April 2014 is a testament to its commitment to passengers.

‘We’re looking to the future now’, says Bevan. ‘An announcement is just around the corner and we are poised and ready to act to help accelerate growth in the north.’