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Opinions on old Northern (Serco Abellio)

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Philip

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I'm wondering how people view the old Northern franchise overall, the one which ran from 2004 to 2016?

Both the current and previous Arriva Northern franchises have received what I think is quite unfair criticism and what's more all three Northern franchises seem to have been an easy target for passengers' frustrations, when really the DfT or other operators have been at fault.

Serco Abellio Northern won numerous awards in their time, including public transport and rail business operator of the year awards along with numerous best kept station awards. They were a bit 'cheap and cheerful' but generally seemed to run a good service, yet were often slated by both passengers and the media.

How did you find the original Northern?
 
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bramling

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I'm wondering how people view the old Northern franchise overall, the one which ran from 2004 to 2016?

Both the current and previous Arriva Northern franchises have received what I think is quite unfair criticism and what's more all three Northern franchises seem to have been an easy target for passengers' frustrations, when really the DfT or other operators have been at fault.

Serco Abellio Northern won numerous awards in their time, including public transport and rail business operator of the year awards along with numerous best kept station awards. They were a bit 'cheap and cheerful' but generally seemed to run a good service, yet were often slated by both passengers and the media.

How did you find the original Northern?

Firstly, they ran the service safely for many years, so that’s the most important box ticked.

I’d say on balance they did a reasonable job with the lack of cards dealt out to them, namely the no-growth franchise. I’d say from some of the stories on here some their revenue tactics were perhaps a little below the belt. They could perhaps have kept their stock a bit cleaner. Also there was an element of disparity between the east and west sides, and the north-east seemed to be its own enclave too.

But all in all a competent operator.
 

yorksrob

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They did pretty well on a shoestring.

They were hobbled by their no growth franchise, although they did manage to get some extra rolling stock in at times.

Low point was probably the Saturday night service from Man Vic along the Calder valley line which dropped to hourly. Occasionally a 2 carriage pacer that was so wedged, the driver couldn't get on !

Their unit refurbs were nice and low key though.
 

bramling

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They did pretty well on a shoestring.

They were hobbled by their no growth franchise, although they did manage to get some extra rolling stock in at times.

Low point was probably the Saturday night service from Man Vic along the Calder valley line which dropped to hourly. Occasionally a 2 carriage pacer that was so wedged, the driver couldn't get on !

Their unit refurbs were nice and low key though.

I actually quite liked Northern’s refurbs, though refurbishment is perhaps too strong a word. Something like an ex Northern Spirit 142 was actually rather pleasant in its way (IMO).

However the issue is they were then left to rot. Standards of cleaning on Northern were quite poor.

One failure was never doing anything about the Merseyrail-interior Pacers. They were simply dire to travel in, especially when they appeared on longer runs. I remember waiting at Barrow for a trip to Carlisle via Whitehaven, when the unit appeared the first thing was to look and make sure it didn’t have a flip-dot destination indicator! Mercifully I never had one of those units for a really long trip like the Cumbrian Coast, but Southport to Manchester Airport was enough!
 

Dr Hoo

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I only moved to Northernland at the end of 2015 so had only limited exposure to the old franchise. I fully appreciate its history as being let on a 'no growth' basis.

It seemed to be pretty shabby TBH. (The Hope Valley line is essentially resourced from the Manchester end.) Things seemed to get progressively better in many ways after the change, with stations and units smartened up and more services. Of course we had the industrial relations problems too but they were arguably not the franchise's fault/choice.
 

tarq

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I remember they had the foresight to introduce the Manchester Victoria to Leeds via Brighouse service despite the shoestrings and no growth franchise. It was transformative for Brighouse. That will always be their legacy for me.
 

TUC

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Firstly, they ran the service safely for many years, so that’s the most important box ticked.
In my experience it's usually failing businesses that use safety as the key evidence of thrm doung a good job. It's usually an indication that thry're a bit rubbish and haven't got anything else to point to in terms of quality or service.
 

yorksrob

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One failure was never doing anything about the Merseyrail-interior Pacers. They were simply dire to travel in, especially when they appeared on longer runs. I remember waiting at Barrow for a trip to Carlisle via Whitehaven, when the unit appeared the first thing was to look and make sure it didn’t have a flip-dot destination indicator! Mercifully I never had one of those units for a really long trip like the Cumbrian Coast, but Southport to Manchester Airport was enough!

Oh yes, been there. Hope Valley stopper and Little North western were the worst I had them on. The horror of the flip-dot destination indicator !
 

Neptune

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Of course we had the industrial relations problems too but they were arguably not the franchise's fault/choice.
Which problems were those? I worked for the Serco franchise throughout and don’t recall any major industrial relations concerns.

The franchise actually did really well considering it was let on a no growth basis (bear in mind ATN & FNW were both growing nicely when let). Separating TPE out was always a mistake in my book and I would like to see them merged but that is not for here.

In the early days there were off lease 158’s added increasing the fleet from 18 units to 46(?) and the addition of 8 centre cars was a massive help.

Then of course the ex central 150’s were added and whilst not the best units they added capacity which was vital as passenger numbers were through the roof.

New services were added including the aforementioned Leeds - Man Vic via Brighouse and of course they were awarded the Leeds - Nottingham service which has gone from strength to strength.

There were some frustrating times from above as always and train cleanliness was left wanting at times but all in all they made the a good job from what few tools they had. Two excellent MD’s at either end, (Heidi Mottram and Alex Hynes) although at the time I wasn’t so enamoured but when I look back I realise they were both doers rather than sitting on their hands like some others I could mention (but won’t).

I also feel that the current paymasters are doing well bearing in mind the hand they’ve been dealt since taking over last year.

It was the bit in between that was the problem but I aren’t going in to that.
 

yorksrob

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Yes, I relied on old Northern throughout its tenure and don't remember many industrial relations problems, certainly compared to what followed.
 

Philip

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Don't forget their outrageously cheeky/brilliant decision to hire in 180s to provide extra capacity for the new timetable. I think a few on this forum would have probably ridiculed the idea at the time ("waste of fast intercity units on suburban routes", "units too costly to run for the service" etc), but it worked well and provided an excellent capacity boost for the Blackpool services and other routes which could then use cascaded Sprinters.
 

northernchris

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I found Serco-Abellio Northern to be a good operator for the most part, and miles ahead of both Arriva and OLR. Getting Yorkshire Forward to sponsor some 158s to boost capacity, the additional services mentioned above and the work they did with community lines / groups were all highlights for me. At the end of the franchise PPM was amongst the highest it had ever been, which can't be easy with an elderly fleet and an overcrowded network
 

py_megapixel

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They were OK.

Positives:
  • They didn't do so much of the joining up unrelated services across cities, which made the system quite a bit more logical
  • The service was generally fairly reliable
  • The stock refurbishments were, mostly, good - at least when new
  • They had some good rolling stock ideas, such as bringing up the 319s and the 180s

Negatives:

  • Those awful striped purple seat covers.
  • Cleaning and interior maintainence left a lot to be desired; falling-apart seat cushions were common in my experience
  • They were poor about rolling out information screens, and when they did, they opted for those tiny two-line ones which have to switch awkwardly between lots of different information
  • They didn't really roll out onboard PIS at all, despite most other TOCs doing so.
  • They were hamstrung by their no-growth franchise, so overcrowding and outdated stock were common issues.
 

yorksrob

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They were OK.

Positives:
  • They didn't do so much of the joining up unrelated services across cities, which made the system quite a bit more logical
  • The service was generally fairly reliable
  • The stock refurbishments were, mostly, good - at least when new
  • They had some good rolling stock ideas, such as bringing up the 319s and the 180s

Negatives:

  • Those awful striped purple seat covers.
  • Cleaning and interior maintainence left a lot to be desired; falling-apart seat cushions were common in my experience
  • They were poor about rolling out information screens, and when they did, they opted for those tiny two-line ones which have to switch awkwardly between lots of different information
  • They didn't really roll out onboard PIS at all, despite most other TOCs doing so.
  • They were hamstrung by their no-growth franchise, so overcrowding and outdated stock were common issues.

I liked the stripey purple moquette !
 

tbtc

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It's funny how the passage of time makes a lot of people put on the rose tinted specs - always the case - look at how we see threads on here now suggesting we bring back things that seemed universally hated at the time.

However, maybe the fairly underwhelming "nationalised" operation of the same services in the last year or show suggest that many/most of the problems weren't the fault of those wicked penny pinching capitalists after all?

As mentioned above, the franchise was done on a No Growth basis. The fact that Northern required subsidy of forty pence per passenger mile (?) means that there was very little incentive to improve/increase services beyond the baseline franchise commitments - people were quick to blame the private companies for not doubling frequencies or lengthening trains but really that was only possible with additional state support (you might as well contract out your five-days-a-week council's bin lorry service and then complain that the private company won't operate seven days!). Any "growth" needed the Government to put their hands in their pockets - the fact that the Government didn't put their hands in their pocket isn't the daily of the private companies.

It was always going to be a hard franchise to operate - but it's worth remembering that this was a six year franchise at first - then kept on life support by various short term Government extensions, kicking the can down the road without allowing sufficient time to tackle any underlying problems. It should all have been over by 2010 but somehow lasted twice as long as initially planned. Not SercoNed's fault - but if our heavily subsidised local railways are going to be run on such a short term basis (with no longer term investment/ strategy) then don't be surprised if all passengers get is an occasional lick of paint but nobody taking tough decisions over things like Pacer replacement or harmonising staff conditions.

In hindsight, there were a lot of improvements that could have happened but those would have required time and money - hence the various short term "fixes" and bodge-jobs (e.g. running Pacers ECS from Sheffield to Tyneside on a regular basis seems wasteful but then there was no money to build a DMU depot in Sheffield, so we had to keep rotating our 142s with Heaton so that they got serviced there).

Revenue collection was poor but then Guards had to operate many DMUs from only the rear door, and there wasn't the money to install ticket machines at all of the lightly used stations across the network.

I think the failure of the subsequent Arriva franchise shows how difficult it was for SercoNed - even with all of the additional investment and planning that Arriva had, they still struggled to deal with the basics (some flashy new trains couldn't mask the problems with Arriva's overambitious franchise).

You're always going to be a punching bag for other people though - given the competing nature of demands across northern England, the jealous nature of inter-city rivalries, the difficulties in making significant improvements when your trains are second or third (or fourth!) in the pecking order of who gets to run on some routes (e.g. you may have wanted to make improvements but the NXEC/ TransPennine/ Cross Country/ Virgin services on the same route were running in fixed paths so that restricted a lot of ambitions.

Overall, much better than the previous MTL franchise (which Arriva "rescued" and tried to turn around - I was east of the Pennines at the time so can't comment as much on FNW, although they seemed a bit better from my limited experience), SercoNed were probably no better or worse than British Rail at running equivalent services - a bit underwhelming at times but the product of being bottom of the food chain - I think that SercoNed were "more sinned against than sinners".

It seemed to be pretty shabby TBH. (The Hope Valley line is essentially resourced from the Manchester end.)

The Hope Valley service was ex First North Western (RRNW) - so was entirely resourced from the Manchester end in the days before the SercoNed franchise started
 

hacman

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I used to use it in the Newcastle area every day, and in the winter especially reliability was often appalling. The trains were often filthy, and the class 142s with the Northern Spirit "car seat" refurb were especially grotty.

The staff were clearly utterly sick of the state of the rolling stock, but ultimately did what they could with the resources they had. Most were lovely, but there was the occasional jobsworth as you get everywhere.

Passenger information was often poor with regards to updating about delays and cancellations, and the lack of investment in things like ticket machines, waiting facilities and real-time information was a definite let down.

As many here have pointed out, the franchise was let on a zero-growth basis, and with a view to everything being done as cheaply as possible. This was, as we can now see, an utterly criminal move - but at least things are being improved somewhat now, better late than never.
 

Bletchleyite

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My take is that it was a bit average, lowest common denominator, OKish. Basically the same as RRNW/FNW were, but with no real ambition and constrained by funding.

However they did do a number of very bad things, such as bringing in poorly trained security guards for revenue and introducing the £80 "Penalty Fake" settlements rather than a proper Penalty Fares system as they should have done.

There was also the classic Alex Hynes "bluster" - him up-talking things that were generally not very good became very tiresome indeed (and remains so up in Scotland where he is now hiding). Heidi Mottram (previously of FNW) was good, though.

I did quite like the toned-down colour scheme (though not the livery which I always thought looked unbalanced and a bit "1980s bus company") but that's about all that jumped out, other than that they weren't the TPE of the time which was also pretty awful. (I used to time journeys to visit family in Ulverston for the Northern service to avoid TPE).
 

yorksrob

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Was old Northern still around during Eden Brows ?

That really was an excellent example of keeping the service running and getting passengers back.
 

LowLevel

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Which problems were those? I worked for the Serco franchise throughout and don’t recall any major industrial relations concerns.

The franchise actually did really well considering it was let on a no growth basis (bear in mind ATN & FNW were both growing nicely when let). Separating TPE out was always a mistake in my book and I would like to see them merged but that is not for here.

In the early days there were off lease 158’s added increasing the fleet from 18 units to 46(?) and the addition of 8 centre cars was a massive help.

Then of course the ex central 150’s were added and whilst not the best units they added capacity which was vital as passenger numbers were through the roof.

New services were added including the aforementioned Leeds - Man Vic via Brighouse and of course they were awarded the Leeds - Nottingham service which has gone from strength to strength.

There were some frustrating times from above as always and train cleanliness was left wanting at times but all in all they made the a good job from what few tools they had. Two excellent MD’s at either end, (Heidi Mottram and Alex Hynes) although at the time I wasn’t so enamoured but when I look back I realise they were both doers rather than sitting on their hands like some others I could mention (but won’t).

I also feel that the current paymasters are doing well bearing in mind the hand they’ve been dealt since taking over last year.

It was the bit in between that was the problem but I aren’t going in to that.

Just a shame the Nottingham - Leeds service didn't go to Midland Mainline/East Midlands as could have happened - I'm not sure strength to strength is quite the right phrase for how it has been operated over the years, desperately unreliable and first to be binned at the sight of a unit shortage largely summed it up.
 

bramling

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I only moved to Northernland at the end of 2015 so had only limited exposure to the old franchise. I fully appreciate its history as being let on a 'no growth' basis.

It seemed to be pretty shabby TBH. (The Hope Valley line is essentially resourced from the Manchester end.) Things seemed to get progressively better in many ways after the change, with stations and units smartened up and more services. Of course we had the industrial relations problems too but they were arguably not the franchise's fault/choice.

An interesting take, as personally I think the new version of Northern is worse in a number of ways. I’d say that with a rider that I’m an occasional user not a regular one.
 

Neptune

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Just a shame the Nottingham - Leeds service didn't go to Midland Mainline/East Midlands as could have happened - I'm not sure strength to strength is quite the right phrase for how it has been operated over the years, desperately unreliable and first to be binned at the sight of a unit shortage largely summed it up.
I believe it was due to EMT not having sufficient rolling stock to run the service whereas Northern did due to the aforementioned 158 uplift.

Sorry but having worked the service since it’s inception in 2008 it has gone from strength to strength, passenger numbers had gone through the roof until March 2020.

I’m trying to think of a time the Serco franchise (the subject of this thread) ‘binned’ the Nottingham service except due to engineering works. No, that one escapes me.

I just hope it isn’t the usual anti-Northern franchise snobbery that exists on here for wishing it hadn’t been given the service. I’m sure EMR would have binned it too during the height of COVID or during strikes.
 

LowLevel

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I believe it was due to EMT not having sufficient rolling stock to run the service whereas Northern did due to the aforementioned 158 uplift.

Sorry but having worked the service since it’s inception in 2008 it has gone from strength to strength, passenger numbers had gone through the roof until March 2020.

I’m trying to think of a time the Serco franchise (the subject of this thread) ‘binned’ the Nottingham service except due to engineering works. No, that one escapes me.

I just hope it isn’t the usual anti-Northern franchise snobbery that exists on here for wishing it hadn’t been given the service. I’m sure EMR would have binned it too during the height of COVID or during strikes.

To be fair much of the reliability rot set in with Arriva taking over. I am somewhat embittered by having to pick up the pieces of that experience - perhaps it would be fair to say the Nottingham route was fair enough under the old franchise (with a couple of exceptions the staff have always been lovely, that strange bloke from Leeds who tries to charge staff travelling on booked diagrams or put them off at places like Ilkeston should stay there though!).

The trains under Serco were clearly out of their last late 1990s/early 2000s makeover with just some new seat covers but what can you do.

The "lets use the 158s on the Huddersfield line and bin the Nottinghams at Chesterfield/Sheffield with 14x to save on wheelset costs without any road transport or ticket acceptance for our irritating Northern Only tickets that sit at the top of the TVM screen" and the practice of flogging tickets until a few days before under the DOO strikes under Arriva leaving those of us going home at 2300 at night to fend off angry drunks turning up at Notts for the 2318 on a Saturday is probably what finished me.

On the other hand, I quite like the Sunday through Carlisle trains, I think they're a grand idea.

In summary it has always been my finding that when Nottingham to Leeds works, it's a perfectly fine service. When it goes wrong as the people picking up after it, you can tell it is far from a priority for Northern control.
 

YorksLad12

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Serco-NED Northern was like a football team punching above its weight and getting to the Fifth Round Proper of the FA Cup with little or no funding and players with spirit but not much else.

Arriva Northern is like the same team suddenly being given lots of money to spend on a new manager and players, making a right Horlicks of it, going bust and having to start again at the bottom of the league pyramid.
 

yorksrob

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Serco-NED Northern was like a football team punching above its weight and getting to the Fifth Round Proper of the FA Cup with little or no funding and players with spirit but not much else.

Arriva Northern is like the same team suddenly being given lots of money to spend on a new manager and players, making a right Horlicks of it, going bust and having to start again at the bottom of the league pyramid.

That is a very good analogy !
 

Bletchleyite

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Serco-NED Northern was like a football team punching above its weight and getting to the Fifth Round Proper of the FA Cup with little or no funding and players with spirit but not much else.

Arriva Northern is like the same team suddenly being given lots of money to spend on a new manager and players, making a right Horlicks of it, going bust and having to start again at the bottom of the league pyramid.

That sounds pretty much spot on.
 

tbtc

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Serco-NED Northern was like a football team punching above its weight and getting to the Fifth Round Proper of the FA Cup with little or no funding and players with spirit but not much else.

Arriva Northern is like the same team suddenly being given lots of money to spend on a new manager and players, making a right Horlicks of it, going bust and having to start again at the bottom of the league pyramid.

I'll agree with that too.

SercoNed had to try and squeeze every last drop out of the stock that they had - hence all of the patronising "random unit generator" reactions that people gave them - which meant some fairly complicated ideas like the Manchester - Bradford - Selby - Bradford - Huddersfield - Wakefield service but I guess that this enabled them to run the route without additional stock. Contrast that to Arriva who had two trains on just the Huddersfield - Bradford section because one unit couldn't manage the thirty six mile round trip in an hour - plus two units on the Huddersfield - Wakefield section (which was extended to Castleford to use up some of the layover time and avoid the need to clog up Kirkgate).

SercoNed's era was also up against the significant improvements on other franchises - look at the swanky new trains that Virgin/ TPE/ XC were getting whilst your Northern service kept the same Pacer/Sprinter it had since the 1980s (and, sometimes, your service had to be downgraded to accommodate the additional paths for these swanky other trains - e.g. seeing your Knutsford - Manchester services reduced so that paths were found for additional London services). Of course Northern was going to look bad by maintaining its fleet at a time when other franchises were investing in flash new stock.

Arriva took over at a great time, when the Government at the time were happy to pay for over a hundred additional carriages plus there were cascaded 150/170s from elsewhere to boost capacity plus the majority of the electrification disruption in north west England was coming to an end. But for all of the additional money thrown at the new franchise, it feels a bit like seeing a sharp suited Italian-sounding manager achieving little more than your Neil Warnock/ Sam Allerdyce actually achieved, once you strip away the distractions.

I'm sure SercoNed would have loved some of the long term funding that Arriva got - instead, they went from threadbare two year extension to threadbare two year extension, with no scope for long term planning.

Meanwhile, for all of Arriva's ambitions, they didn't deliver, and it looks fairly likely that the new "state controlled" operation is coming up against the same old problems that SercoNed had - nationalisation isn't solving the problems that critics of privatisation said it would - running the services that Northern is lumbered with is always going to be a struggle.

But, just wait, in fifteen years time we'll probably see threads waxing lyrically about how good the Arriva Trains Northern operations was!
 
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