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Tories accused of attempting to bury news of rail ticket price hikes

THE government was accused by rail union RMT of deploying “dead cat” distraction tactics today, after announcing that Northern could be stripped of its rail franchise on the day that train fares rose by an average of 2.7 per cent.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps today said it was “absolutely the case” that Northern is unfit to run rail services and that he has begun the parliamentary process to find a new operator.

Some 30 protests against the price hike were held by RMT members across the country today, including with the union’s general secretary Mick Cash outside King’s Cross in central London.

Mr Cash argued that the announcement was an attempt to steer headlines away from price rises, saying that the move “has all the hallmarks of a dead cat being ‎slung on the table.”

He said: “If Grant Shapps was serious he would set out a timetable for removing the Northern rail franchise from Arriva and their replacement with the public-sector operator.

“I am seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Shapps to pin down the detail and how it affects RMT‎ members and the services they provide.”

The threat to Northern was further thrown into doubt when Department for Transport officials later admitted that the franchise could continue to operate services through a new, short-term contract.

The other option being considered is nationalising services by putting the government-controlled operator of last resort in charge.

The price of an annual season ticket on the 59-minute journey from Reading to London rose today by £132 to £4,736.

Despite some fares falling in Scotland by 1 per cent, the 71-minute train journey from Glasgow to Edinburgh now costs annual season ticket holders £4,200, a rise of £116.

This is despite watchdog Transport Focus finding in its latest survey that fewer than half (47 per cent) of rail passengers were “satisfied” with the cost of tickets.

Association of British Commuters co-founder Emily Yates said of the price rise: “It feels like Groundhog Day, to be honest. It’s a complete charade.

“Every year we ask for a fares freeze. The government says no and the rail industry defends the decision.”

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said: “Once again, the privatised train companies are telling passengers to pay more for a poorer service and that’s not a great offer, is it?

“Not for passengers, not for businesses and not for the British economy — which needs a modern rail network to move people, packages and freight around this country.”

“We are calling for Britain’s railways to be brought back into public ownership. That will bring down fares, while the profits can be reinvested in our railway instead of being shipped abroad in dividends to shareholders.”

Announcing the potential axing of the Northern franchise, Mr Shapps said: “It’s completely unacceptable to have a situation where trains almost just routinely don’t run to a routine, to run on time.

“I simply will not put up with that.”

More than a dozen trains were cancelled across Northern services, today, including links from Carlisle to Morpeth and Blackpool North to York.

Arriva, a subsidiary of the German state-owned Deutsche Bahn, holds the Northern franchise, which was due to run until March 2025.

The botched implementation of new train timetables last summer saw hundreds of Northern services cancelled every day.

Office of Rail and Road figures show that just 56 per cent of Northern trains arrived at stations within one minute of the timetable in the 12 months to December 7, compared with the national average of 65 per cent.

Northern says it has faced unprecedented challenges beyond its control, such as major infrastructure upgrades running behind schedule and delays in the building and delivery of new trains.

Labour shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “Arriva Rail North should have been stripped of its franchise years ago following its woeful performance and treatment of passengers.

“The Tories stood by as the company ran the service into the ground. They failed to hold Arriva to the terms of its contract and yet again passengers and taxpayers will pay the price.”

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