For long-suffering travellers in the North of England and Scotland, there’s something to smile about today as FirstGroup is to be stripped of operating its Transpennine Express franchise.
Transpennine Express “Nova 1” Class 802 Train – Image, Hitachi Rail.
The Transport Secretary has announced he will not renew or extend Transpennine Express’s (TPE) contract at the end of the month. This will bring the company into the operator of last resort (OLR) from 28 May 2023.
The decision follows months of significant disruption and regular cancellations across Transpennine Express’s network, which has resulted in a considerable decline in confidence for passengers.
The Department for Transport worked alongside Transpennine Express to take steps to improve services, putting the operator on a recovery plan in February and meeting with local mayors to discuss a way forward. Whilst some improvements have been made over the past few months, the performance targets seem to have not been hit, requiring both the contract and the underlying relationships to be reset.
The decision to bring Transpennine Express into the control of the operator of last resort is temporary. It is the government’s full intention that it will return to the private sector.
It’s not all roses, however…
Transpennine Express has other issues – including a backlog of recruitment and training drivers and the ill will that has built up between the operator and the ASLEF union to withdraw of rest day working – preventing drivers from taking on overtime shifts and filling in gaps on services, with both sides claiming and counter-claiming against each other. ASLEF has a rebuttal published.
As such, it seems that this is a chance to clear the decks and try and foster new relationships between management, the operator, its staff, the trade unions and passengers.
The government continues to urge the union to call off upcoming strikes and the rest day working ban.
FirstGroup’s own commentary on it not having the contract renewed blames its relationship with the unions as part of its failure to deliver since 2022.
Transport Secretary, Mark Harper said:
In my time as Transport Secretary, I have been clear that passenger experience must always come first. 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.
Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup’s Chief Executive Officer 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.
“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.”
Andy Hourigan, ASLEF’s lead officer for TPE , has also spoken about the poor industrial relations between the company and ASLEF:
‘We have problems every day because this is a company which doesn’t know how to behave properly, manage well, or how to run a railway.
‘The company talks about RDW but we have not had a meeting with TPE about RDW this year. Since long before Christmas, in fact.’
The next steps (and for passengers too)
From the 28th May, Transpennine Express will no longer be operated by FirstGroup, and instead operated by “the operator of last resort”.
Under this, services will run as normal with no changes to tickets, timetables or planned services to ensure a seamless transition (subject to the usual cancellations that affect the train operator).
Meanwhile, at the government level, the Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to review services in the north to help drive efficiency and find better ways to deliver for passengers across the region. There is also a call to all interested parties including the northern mayors and Transport for the North to engage with the government on this work.
As for Transpennine Express? It will join the other local operation Northern, as well as London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Southeastern Trains as another company run by the Operator of Last Resort.
We can only hope this “reset” will allow tempers to calm, new working procedures to be developed and more importantly, a stable and reliable timetable to operate.
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