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Following the 1992 General Election the Conservative government, led by (Sir) John Major, passed the Railways Act, 1993.

This would end almost 50 years of state ownership and management of the railways that were, at that point, under the control of the British Railways Board (BRB).

This was the most fundamental change to the structure and control of the national railway system since the “Grouping” that took place in 1923 and Nationalisation in 1948.

Infrastructure & Stations
The first step under the Act was to separate the ownership and operation of the fixed railway infrastructure from that of the provision and running of train services. The responsibilities for the fixed infrastructure, signalling systems, overall train planning long with the day to day operation of a number of “major” stations (i.e. Euston, Kings Cross and Birmingham New Street) were vested in a new organisation called Railtrack. This was effective from 1st April 1994 and Railtrack was floated on the stock market in 1996.

In 2002, following a period of “railway administration” preceded by significant problems relating to safety, funding, infrastructure maintenance and network punctuality performance levels, Railtrack PLC was “bought” by Network Rail Ltd. The majority of the responsibilities of Railtrack were transferred to the new “limited by guarantee” company.

Passenger and freight services
At the start of privatisation, the BRB initially retained operational responsibility for passenger and freight services. From 1994 this quickly changed.
In advance of privatisation, the BRB disaggregated the freight business into a number of separate businesses. Six freight operating companies (FOCs) were created - three geographical units for trainload freight (Mainline Freight in the south-east, Load-Haul in the north-east and Trans-Rail in the west), plus Railfreight Distribution for international and wagonload trains, Freightliner (UK) for container-carrying trains, and Rail Express Systems for parcels and mail trains.

In 1996, the freight services, including locomotives, wagons and some associated infrastructure not vested in Railtrack, were sold to the private sector. The majority of these, including Rail Express Systems and Railfreight Distribution (in 1997) were bought by Wisconsin Central and given the name English, Welsh and Scottish Ltd (EWS). Subsequently EWS was bought by DB Schenker (DBS) in 2007 and the business re-branded as DB Cargo UK in 2016.

BR Freightliner, the intermodal container transport business, was sold in 1996 to a Management Buy Out (MBO) and now operates under the name Freightliner. It has expanded to include the subsidiary Freightliner Heavy Haul coal and aggregates business. In Cumbria, in addition to EWS (now DB Cargo UK) and Freightliner, other freight operators have emerged since privatisation.

Direct Rail Services (DRS), a then subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd and now the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA), was formed in 1994 to operate, in house, radioactive flask traffic to and from installations such as Sellafield. These had been previously been operated by British Rail. In 1998 DRS moved its base from Sellafield to Kingmoor Depot, Carlisle. Since its formation DRS has expanded the range of freight services operated and has moved into the provision of vehicles and locomotives for charter and scheduled passenger services – some of these were run in West Cumbria for a while.

Also hauling freight traffic through Cumbria and the North West are Colas, who started operations in 2007. Some of their first traffic movements were timber flows from Carlisle to Chirk.

GB Railfreight (GBRf) was founded by GB Railways in 1999. It was not part of the original British Rail freight business disaggregation and privatisation. Operations commenced in 2001 and the locomotives and trains have been regularly seen operating services through Cumbria. In 2015 GBRf assumed responsibility for providing traction for the Caledonian Sleeper services from London to Scotland.

Passenger Business locomotives and vehicles
The non-freight elements of the BRB locomotive and passenger rolling stock fleets, including electric and diesel multiple units (EMUs/DMUs) were divided up between three Rolling Stock Leasing Companies (ROSCOs) specially created within the private sector in 1994. These companies were named Porterbrook, Angel Train Leasing and Eversholt. They formed the core of what was intended to be a competitive rolling stock market to supply the Train Operating Companies (TOCs).
Passenger Services
Passenger services were divided amongst some 25 TOCs which were initially formed into limited companies wholly owned by the BRB. They were to be the basis of the franchises for which the then Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF) sought bidders. The TOCs are responsible for operating a portfolio of specified trains services, rolling stock and leased stations.

The first TOC to be sold to the private sector was South West Trains. Stagecoach acquired this franchise and began operations from 4 th February 1996. The rest of the TOC franchises followed quickly within the next 12 months or so. As far as Cumbria was concerned franchises commenced operations as follows:

Franchise name Franchisee Period Start Date
North East Trains MTL Trust Holdings 7 years 2nd. March 1997
North West Trains Great Western Holdings 7 years 2nd. March 1997
Cross Country Trains Virgin Trains 15 years 3 months 5th. January 1997
West Coast Trains Virgin Trains/Stagecoach 15 years 5th. January 1997
Scotrail National Express 7 years 31st. March 1997

The longer length of the Cross Country and West Coast franchises reflected the impact of the West Coast Main Line upgrade and associated introduction of new trains (Pendelino and Voyager) that would occur in the early franchise years.

From early in the privatisation process the map of franchise ownership began to change. From the perspective of train services in Cumbria there have been several significant changes since 1997. In 2000 the Northern Spirit franchise (and MTL itself) was taken over by Arriva Trains and re-branded Arriva Trains Northern. This included services between Newcastle and Carlisle, Leeds to Carlisle and Leeds to Morecambe via Lancaster. In 1998 Great Western Holdings sold the North West Trains operation to First Group and the franchise was re-branded as First North Western.

In 2004, at the end of the First North Western and Arriva franchises, a DfT restructuring of services led to the creation of the Northern franchise which comprised most of the services run by the previous two operators. The tender for these services was won by Ned Railways (later re-named Abellio Group) and Serco as a joint operation.

As part of this overall restructuring a new Transpennine franchise was formed out of services run by Arriva Trains, Cross Country and First North Western. This led to the transfer of some stations in the North West and Cumbria to the new franchise, including Manchester Airport, Barrow-in-Furness, Grange-over-Sands, Ulverston and Windermere stations. The train services transferred included Manchester Airport to Barrow, Blackpool, Windermere and Glasgow/Edinburgh. Northern did, though, continue to operate some services from Lancaster to Barrow-in-Furness.

This initial Transpennine franchise was won by First Group/Keolis and began operations in March 2004 as First Transpennine. The expiration of this franchise in March 2016 led to further changes with the services to Barrow and Windermere and the associated stations being re-absorbed into the new Northern franchise. The new Transpennine Express franchise has been won by First Group as a solo bidder and continues until 2023.

The Northern franchise operated by Abellio also came to an end at the beginning of March 2016. The successful bidder this time was Arriva Trains (now a DB Group subsidiary) and was scheduled to end in 2025. This franchise embraced many daytime passenger services within Cumbria including services from Manchester/Preston to Barrow- in- Furness; Barrow- in-Furness to Carlisle via Workington; Oxenholme to Windermere; Leeds to Carlisle via Settle; and Carlisle to Newcastle. The exceptions were: TransPennine Express services between Manchester Airport/Manchester/Liverpool and Glasgow/Edinburgh; Avanti West Coast Train services from London/Birmingham to Glasgow and Edinburgh and Scotrail services (see below). The Northern franchise saw the almost complete withdrawal of Pacer trains and the arrival of new Class 195 DMUs in south Cumbria, with Class 15X units being the other main traction types.

However, in January 2020, the Secretary of State announced that the Arriva Trains franchise would be terminated on 1st. March 2020 and operations transferred to the Operator of Last Resort “OLR”. This decision followed a period of operational and commercial turbulence for Northern. Poor train service performance had led to extensive customer and stakeholder complaints and pressure for the franchise to be terminated. The new OLR operation has no fixed end date and will be operated by Northern Trains Limited, although it is not yet clear if any outward commercial branding changes will be evident.

West Coast Trains
The expiration of this franchise (operated jointly by Virgin and Stagecoach) in 2012 led to a re-tendering process which was initially awarded to First Group. However, a legal challenge relating to alleged franchising irregularities led to Virgin remaining as the operator, but this time under a Management Contract, initially until 2014. This was then extended until 2019 when, following a new tendering process, First/Trenitalia partnership was awarded the Franchise using the brand name Avanti West Coast. The new franchise, known as the West Coast Partnership, will operate in two phases. The first phase started from 8th. December 2019. The second phase will run from when HS2 operations start, a date yet to be confirmed, until March 2031. Avanti West Coast will continue to operate the Pendolino and (for the time being) Voyager fleets through Cumbria.
Cross Country
The expiration of the Virgin Cross Country franchise, led to a tendering exercise in 2006. This resulted in Arriva UK Trains being the successful bidder, taking over from November 2007 the services previously operated by Virgin Cross Country. However from a Cumbrian perspective, the changes in the franchise resulted in the loss of direct through services from Scotland and the North West to the South Coast and the South West. These destinations can now only be accessed either via a change in Birmingham or London.
The original franchise was tendered in 1997 and won by National Express. Following this, First Group won the next bidding round for the 2004 Scotrail franchise. This second franchise terminated in 2015 with Abellio Group now the current train operator. However, the Scottish Government has decided to terminate the franchise when the core contract finishes on 31st. March 2022 rather than continue with Abellio until the original termination date of 2025. Subsidy/value for money issues have been cited as the reasons for this change. Scotrail serves Cumbria with services that run between Glasgow – Dumfries – Carlisle and Newcastle.
Caledonian Sleepers
The first franchise to operate the Anglo – Scottish sleeper services (which call at Carlisle) was won by National Express in 1997. At this time the operation of the sleeper services was included within the overall Scotrail franchise specification and remained so when the franchise operation was taken over by First Group in 2004. However, in the last round of tendering this franchise, from 2015 the sleeper services were to be run as a separate business. The successful new bidder was Serco who will now operate the services until 2030.

Current Passenger Franchise Operators Operating Within Cumbria
Franchise Operator Current Franchise Length
West Coast First/Trenitalia 2019 - 2031
Northern Arriva Trains UK Ltd Terminated 1st.March 2020
Northern Northern Trains Ltd (OLR) 1st.March 2020 onwards
Transpennine Express First Group 2016 - 2023
Scotrail Abellio Group 2015 - 2022
Caledonian Sleepers Serco 2015 - 2030

For further reading see Bibliography