Troubled rail operator Northern has the finances to continue only “for a number of months”, the government has said.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced he is evaluating a proposal from the train operator on options for continuing its franchise.
The process could ultimately lead to the government taking control of services, he said.
Arriva Rail North, which operates Northern services, apologised to customers for ongoing disruption.
The company has faced a range of issues in recent years, such as widespread cancellations amid the introduction of new timetables.
A final decision on the future of Northern will be taken later this month.
Mr Shapps said the most recent financial information showed the firm would “only be able to continue for a number of months”.
He continued: “Passengers in the North have had to put up with unacceptable services for too long.
“We understand how frustrating this has been for people and we are taking action to make sure that performance improves.
“Following completion of this process I will consider whether to award Arriva Rail North a short-term management contract or whether to ask the Department of Transport’s own operator of last resort to step in and deliver passenger services.”
Chris Burchell, Arriva’s managing director of UK Trains, said Northern accepted services were “not yet good enough” and “sincerely apologised” to customers.
“Many of the issues affecting the franchise however are outside the direct control of Northern,” he said.
“Assumptions were given when the plan for the franchise was developed that critical infrastructure projects would be delivered to enable growth and support capacity demands.
“Many of these have either been delayed or cancelled. This, along with unprecedented levels of strike action, has had a significant impact on the franchise.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald previously said that Northern “should have been stripped of its franchise years ago”.
Labour mayors Steve Rotherham and Andy Burnham also previously called on the government to take control of the service.
A review of UK railways is already taking place, led by former boss of British Airways Keith Williams.