UK: The Department for Transport announced on March 27 that it had directly awarded incumbent Northern Rail a new franchise running from the end of its current franchise on April 1 2014 until February 2016, when a long-term franchise is now expected to be let.

DfT said the deal 'marks the start of the transformation of rail services across the north', and would help support £600m of rail investment in the region, including electrification. It includes tougher punctuality, reliability and passenger satisfaction targets, a commitment to providing information screens at a further 100 stations and extending availability of advanced tickets.

The new franchise has been co-signed by five regional Passenger Transport Executives, which 'are continuing to work in partnership with government on the management of services and the specification for the new franchise'.

Northern Rail Managing Director Alex Hynes said the contract had been shaped by economic austerity and the government's aim of reducing the overall cost of rail to taxpayers.

'The next 22 months is about being more efficient and more effective, seeking and delivering new ways of working', he said. 'That doesn't mean taking short cuts or risks. It's about achieving a balance: delivering a safe and improved service in a new way: doing more with less. We're already delivering enhancements across our network; our services are more punctual and reliable, and the commitment is there to drive further efficiency with our partners. Crucially today's announcement gives us the opportunity to start consulting with all our stakeholders on the requirements for creating a step change in rail services for the north under the next long-term franchise.'

Northern Rail is an equally-owned joint venture of Serco and the Abellio subsidiary of Dutch state passenger operator NS. It operates 2 500 services a day across northern England, serving cities including Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield as well as regional and rural routes. It carries 94 million passengers/year, 47% more than when the franchise began in December 2004.