TransPennine Express brought under government control

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The Transport Secretary Mark Harper has announced he will not renew or extend TransPennine Express’s (TPE) contract at the end of the month, bringing the company into Operator of Last Resort (OLR) from 28th May.

The decision follows months of disruption and regular cancellations across TPE’s network, which has resulted in a decline in confidence for passengers who rely on the train service to go about their daily lives.

“In my time as Transport Secretary, I have been clear that passenger experience must always come first,” said Mr Harper. “After months of commuters and Northern businesses bearing the brunt of continuous cancellations, I’ve made the decision to bring TransPennine Express into Operator of Last Resort.”

The DfT put the operator on a recovery plan in February. While some improvements were made over the past few months, it has been decided that, to achieve past levels of performance, both the contract and the underlying relationships must be reset.

The DfT has recognised that a significant number of problems facing TPE stem from matters out of its control. These include a backlog of recruitment and training drivers, reforming how the workforce operates and ASLEF’s decision to withdraw rest day working.

Outgoing franchise owner FirstGroup has responded to the announcement. In a press release, it said:

“For a sustained period during the first year of the current contract, TPE posted its best performance results for a decade. However, in 2022 TPE’s service levels declined due to circumstances not wholly within the operator’s control, mainly the challenging industrial relations environment including the withdrawal of longstanding industry-standard overtime arrangements while undertaking unprecedented driver training requirements due to infrastructure upgrades. Following the introduction of an agreed recovery plan in February 2023, cancellations have fallen by approximately 40% and will continue to do so as more drivers become available over the next few months.

“The Group is disappointed by the decision not to extend the National Rail Contract for TPE, given the investment and improvements we have made to the service over the years, which resulted in growing annual passenger numbers from 14 million in 2004 to more than 29 million before the pandemic.”

Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup’s chief executive officer added:

“We have operated TransPennine Express and its forerunners since 2004, and are very proud to have served the communities across northern England and into Scotland, carrying millions of passengers and introducing new trains, new routes and more seats for our customers. Our team have worked extremely hard to improve services, including by recruiting and training more drivers than ever before. We have also worked closely with the DfT and Transport for the North on an agreed recovery plan as well as an improved offer on overtime working for our drivers.

“FirstGroup is a leading UK rail operator with a strong and diversified portfolio. Today’s decision does not alter our belief in the important role of private rail operators in the delivery of vital, environmentally-friendly transport for customers and communities across the UK.”

Under Operator of Last Resort, services will run as normal with no changes to tickets, timetables or planned services with the Department committed to ensuring a seamless transition for passengers.

The DfT has stressed that the decision to bring TPE into the control of the Operator of Last Resort is temporary and it is the Government’s full intention that it will return to the private sector.

Image credit: TransPennine Express

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