TransPennine Express renationalised, but union refuses to share the blame

Updated 11.20, 11.55

The National Rail Contract held by FirstGroup to run Transpennine Express will not be renewed when it expires on 28 May, and the operation will be taken over by the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort.

The decision has been welcomed by opposition politicians, ASLEF and passenger watchdog Transport Focus, while FirstGroup said it was ‘disappointed’.

The DfT has decided not let FirstGroup stay in control after what it described as ‘months of disruption and regular cancellations’, which has ‘resulted in a considerable decline in confidence’.

TPE has become notorious for its high level of cancellations, including many which are decided the previous night and do not therefore show in the official statistics.

Transport secretary Mark Harper said: ‘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 seven-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, and putting the very fair and reasonable pay offer to a democratic vote of their members.’

Mr Harper’s decision will also be welcomed by Mayors in the city regions in the TPE area, who have voiced strident criticism of TPE’s performance.

Meanwhile, First’s CEO Graham Sutherland said: ‘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.’

Labour shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh responded to the change of ownership by saying: ‘This broken service has comprehensively failed the north. After months of needless damage, Conservative ministers have finally accepted they can no longer defend the indefensible.

’But this endless cycle of shambolic private operators failing passengers, shows the Conservatives’ rail system is fundamentally broken.’

The chair of the Commons Transport Committee Chair Iain Stewart said: ‘Stripping TransPennine Express of its contract is absolutely the right call. Tthere was no realistic expectation it would improve, unlike with Avanti where demonstrable progress was being made. We also heard about extensive use of so-called ‘p-coding’ – where if a service was removed from the timetable the evening before it wouldn’t appear in the cancellations data.

‘A range of factors were at play. TPE was among train operators who failed to recruit enough drivers during and after the pandemic, despite having their revenue guaranteed by the Department for Transport and knowing they have an ageing workforce. Upgrades to railway lines have also caused disruption. The change of management won’t resolve all of these problems overnight, and a deal needs to be reached with ASLEF on rest-day working, pay and conditions. I will be asking for details about how the Department plans to deliver the better service that passengers deserve.’

Transport for the North chair and former transport secretary Lord McLoughlin said: ‘The TfN Board’s position on this issue has been clear for some considerable time, that services need to significantly improve. While we have seen some improvements over recent months, to achieve the performance levels passengers expect and deserve, and that the northern economy needs, there is a need for a resetting of the operation.

‘We will now look forward positively to discussing with our members and working with the government to ensure the best way to achieve a service that meets the expectations of those living and working in the north.’

Anthony Smith is the chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus. He said: ‘TransPennine Express passengers have endured an unacceptable service for too long. In our latest survey TransPennine Express was rated the joint worst performing train operator and just 67 per cent of passengers were satisfied with how punctual their journey was.

‘Whichever organisation runs TransPennine Express rail services, under whatever contractual arrangements, passengers will want to see a much more reliable service. It’s clear that passengers deserve better, and the operator needs to take action to improve performance and build back passenger trust.’

Unions have welcomed the decision, but ASLEF refuses to share the blame for the problem. 

General secretary Mick Whelan said: ‘While we are delighted that the Transport Secretary has, at last, done the right thing and cancelled the lucrative contract of this failing rail company, we are disappointed that he is trying to blame ASLEF – rather than the company’s inept management – for its many problems.

‘TPE management is famous throughout the railway industry for its confrontational approach. The company’s drivers – our members – will not be intimidated or abused by TPE managers. That’s what we have made clear over the years – that’s what we have done – and now the company has paid the price.

‘TPE – which is run by FirstGroup, which is also responsible for Avanti West Coast and all its problems on the West Coast Main Line – has never employed enough drivers to deliver the services it promised to run. It has failed to recruit, and retain, the drivers it needs. 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. And what it has been working so hard to achieve. Mark Harper – who is not a stupid man – knows full well that the fault lies not with this trade union, but at the door of the company and its desperately poor managers.’

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said it was ‘absolutely right’ not to renew or extend the Transpennine Express contract, something for which the union had campaigned.

He continued: ‘First should now also lose its failed Avanti West Coast contract as part of a return of all our railways to public ownership.

‘With other parts of our railway already nationalised this decision should now mark the beginning of the end for rail privatisation which has brought nothing but chaos for passengers.

‘However, it is disappointing to hear transport secretary Mark Harper saying that he intends to return TPE to the private sector despite the shambles the service has become.’ 

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