State to take control of TransPennine Express after ongoing poor service


TransPennine Express is to be run by the state after ministers announced that the failing rail company would not have its contract renewed.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said the northern rail network will be run by the state-owned operator of last resort after passengers experienced disruption, cancellations and a significant decline in the extent and reliability of the service.

The FirstGroup-owned TPE’s contract expires on 28 May. Passengers and politicians across the north had called for change, with jobs and lives blighted by trains that failed to run.

Harper said the move would not fix the service overnight and blamed the train drivers’ union Aslef for some of the issues.

“In my time as transport secretary, I have been clear that passenger experience must always come first,” he 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.”

The Department for Transport said it had taken steps to improve services, with the operator having launched a recovery plan in February. Despite slight improvements, the DfT said that to achieve the “performance levels passengers deserve, and that the northern economy needs, both the contract and the underlying relationships must be reset”.

However, the DfT said some of the problems were out of TPE’s control – particularly a backlog of recruitment and training of drivers, and the dispute over rest-day working.

Ministers have been keen to retain FirstGroup, the longest-standing British company remaining in the railway, and maintain a privatised system. The DfT said the decision to bring TPE under operator of last resort was a temporary move and the government intended for it to return to the private sector.

TPE now joins Northern, LNER and Southeastern as being run by the state. Labour has said it would take rail operations under state control as contracts expired if it was in government.

“We hope this allows an opportunity to reset relationships with staff, who have borne the brunt of operator failings, and look forward to hearing how the new operator intends to improve services.”

The decision went to the wire, with ministers agonising over their options, and the decision was delayed until after the local elections – with the state of services in the north contributing to disappointing poll results for the government.

TPE’s sister service in FirstGroup, Avanti West Coast, has been given two six-month extensions, with a warning to improve when its contract expired in autumn 2022. However, there had not been sufficient signs of recovery at TPE, which was also warned by the rail regulator over concealing the extent of cancellations in official figures.

FirstGroup’s chief executive, Graham Sutherland, said: “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.”

Harper said the move would provide an opportunity to reset relationships between the operator, staff, unions and passengers. The DfT will review services across the north, with Harper asking mayors to engage in that process.