Train services run by TransPennine Express will be brought under government control following months of widespread delays and cancellations.
The government has decided not to renew the TransPennine contract from 28 May, after a quarter of the operator’s services were cancelled in January and February and one in six trains did not run in March 2023.
The constant cancellations and delays have resulted in a considerable decline in confidence for passengers who rely on the trains to get to work, visit family and friends and go about their daily lives.
The government’s ‘operator of last resort’ (OLR) will now run the service, which covers Manchester and Liverpool in the North of England and runs to Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland. Although passengers will not see changes in timetables and ticket prices, the government’s goal is to improve its performance, officials have said.
The decision was announced by Transport Secretary Mark Harper, who was careful to warn it is “not a silver bullet”, highlighting action by the train drivers’ union, Aslef, as a factor in disrupted services.
“In my time as Transport Secretary, I have been clear that passenger experience must always come first,” Harper said. “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.
“This is not a silver bullet and will not instantaneously fix a number of challenges being faced, including Aslef’s actions which are preventing Transpennine Express from being able to run a full service – once again highlighting why it’s so important that the railways move to a 7-day working week.
“We have played our part, but Aslef now need to play theirs by calling off strikes and the rest day working ban, putting the very fair and reasonable pay offer to a democratic vote of their members.”
The operator, which covers an area across northern England and into Scotland, has been badly affected by union action over the past year, as drivers who are members of Aslef have stopped volunteering to work paid overtime shifts.
TransPennine, which is run by the company FirstGroup, has stood out for the number of trains it has cancelled the night before they are due to run, because of staff shortages, and said it was working on bringing the numbers down.
“Our team have worked extremely hard to improve services, including by recruiting and training more drivers than ever before,” said Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup’s chief executive.
Others have disagreed. Watchdog Transport Focus said passengers have “endured an unacceptable service for too long” while West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin declared it was “absolutely right that this is the end of the line” for what she described as a “failing railway operator”.
However, Aslef has said that blaming the disruption on workers’ actions is “misleading” and that the blame should lie with the company’s “inept management”.
“It (First Group) has failed to recruit, and retain, the drivers it needs,” said Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef. “It has abused staff, tried to take away our terms and conditions, and tried to force through changes rather than negotiate like grown-ups.
“That’s why the company has, frankly, got exactly what it deserves today.”
The Department for Transport first put the operator on a recovery plan in February after meeting local mayors to discuss a way forward.
“While some improvements have been made over the past few months, it has been decided that to achieve the performance levels passengers deserve, and that the northern economy needs, both the contract and the underlying relationships must be reset,” Dft said in a statement.
“The decision to bring TransPennine Express 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.”
The frequent disruptions have affected many passengers, with some not being surprised by the government’s move.
“I’m a regular TPE customer and have the battle scars to prove it,” said Carl Heaton, from Leeds. “It’s often just a lottery whether there’s a train comes or not, to be honest.
“It’s the right thing to do but should have been done a long while ago. I can’t really see how anyone can turn it round quickly, though.”
Trish Howard, from York, added: “The whole system across the north has been a mess for years now. Something had to be done but it’s a big job for someone. I’m guessing whoever takes over isn’t going to sort it out overnight, so I’m not holding my breath that it’ll get any better.”
The Operator of Last Resort already runs London North Eastern Railway, Northern and Southeastern services.
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