TransPennine Express reputation trashed in Parliament
British passenger train operator TransPennine Express has been pilloried in the press for cancelled trains and poor performance. The operator, which connects northern England with southern Scotland, has fallen from grace, big time. Now, their failings have been highlighted in parliament, with a high-profile exposé raised at Prime Minister’s Question Time.
To have a question raised in the House is usually a serious matter. To have a question raised at Prime Minister’s Question Time is as bad as it gets. It didn’t get any worse for TransPennine Express. The operator was taken to task in front of a nationwide audience, at the most public session of parliamentary business.
Over one thousand cancellations, not called cancellations
A loophole in regulations allows train operators leeway to remove trains from their timetable up to 2200 the previous evening, without being classed as a “cancellation”. According to widely reported Office of Rail and Road figures, TPE exercised this “pre-planned service alteration” clause 1,048 times in a four week period over January – February. That was far in excess of any other operator. Actually, It was in excess of all the other reporting operators put together.
Using the quaint style of parliamentary debate, Scottish member of parliament David Mundell, asked the prime minister if he agreed that this practice, and the level of service overall from TPE, was unacceptable. David Mundell represents Dumfriesshire, a largely rural area of the south of Scotland, served by the Anglo-Scottish operator (a similar arrangement serves a new station Reston). He has frequently remarked unfavourably on the company. Unsurprisingly, prime minister Rishi Sunak did agree, and reminded the House that TPE’s contract is up for renewal in May. The prospect of the government taking over as “operator of last resort” is certainly an option.
No drivers, no service, no relief in sight
TransPennine Express did, at one time, have high ratings and high regard from the travelling public. The company gained much credit for the revamp of its fleet, which went a long way towards alleviating overcrowding – particularly on its very popular cross-border services between Manchester and Glasgow and Edinburgh.
However, since the pandemic, a serious shortage of staff – notably drivers – has been a critical factor in forcing the company into the unenviable position of being the most cancelled operator in the UK. Even within the recognised definition of cancellation, said Mundell in his parliamentary contribution, the company had “fiddled” the figures by exploiting the “pre-amended service” loop hole over one thousand times in a recent twenty-eight day period.
Meanwhile a systems failure – so try the ticket office
Mercifully, for the operator, TPE was not among those affected by a computer systems outage at Network Rail on Wednesday, at about the same time as PMQs. The government’s infrastructure management agency reported a “systems failure”, causing physical departure boards and some online tracking services to display inaccurate train movements.
Among the affected operators were the East Coast services of LNER out of London King’s Cross to Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh; Greater Anglia, who serve counties in the east of England out of London Liverpool Street; the Penzance to Aberdeen and all points in-between operator Cross Country Trains; and Northern, who serve a vast swathe of England, including Liverpool, Manchester, Hull and most local services in Yorkshire and Lancashire. According to the operators’ association, the Rail Delivery Group, the problem was fixed around Wednesday lunchtime. Prior to that, passengers were advised to do something they may never have done before: buy a ticket at the station ticket office. Who remembers them? Just be sure that TPE service is actually not cancelled.