Two Transpennine Express Nova trains at Newcastle station

TPE, UK passenger operator behind service alterations scandal, sacked

Two Transpennine Express Nova trains at Newcastle station Transpennine Express media

The massively criticised UK passenger operator TransPennine Express has been sacked from its franchise. Passengers using the service, which connects Liverpool and Manchester with Glasgow and Edinburgh, have become disillusioned and furious at overcrowded and absent trains. TPE, which provided many other Anglo-Scottish and north of England routes, has been vilified for hiding huge numbers of cancelled services behind an administrative loophole. The service will now be taken over by the UK government’s operator of last resort, and will be administered by the Department for Transport.

It will come as a huge surprise to absolutely no one that Mark Harper, the UK Transport Secretary has today (11 May) announced he will not renew or extend the TransPennine Express’s (TPE) contract at the end of the month. This will bring the company into 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.

Under the control of Westminster

In a terse statement from the company, it was revealed that the managers of the franchise, Aberdeen headquartered FirstGroup, has been stripped of the wide-ranging network. “We can confirm that today the Secretary of State has announced that the operation of the TransPennine Express service will transfer to a new Government operator – DOHL – on 28 May 2023”, said their statement. “All tickets remain valid and customers should continue to use and purchase tickets in the normal manner. Further communications relating to TransPennine Trains Ltd as a DOHL operator will be made after the transfer takes place on 28 May 2023.”

Worms eye view of buffer bar on a class 68 locomotive looking down the train into the distance
Hit the buffers. TPE Class 68 locomotive laid up in sidings at Selby.

DOHL, a contraction of the “Department for Transport Operator of last resort Holdings Limited”, will see the service brought under the control of Westminster, which already operates several other former franchise operations – including South East Trains, Northern Trains, and the East Coast Main Line operator LNER. Domestic services in Wales and Scotland are also in public ownership, as transport matters are devolved to the governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

End of the line

The DfT has been involved in the franchise already. Alongside the train operating company, they took steps to improve services, putting the operator on a recovery plan in February and meeting with local mayors to discuss a way forward. Improvements have been slow to materialise and the end of the line has been reached as far as the government is concerned. “While making the decision to bring Transpennine Express into operator of last resort, the department recognises that a significant number of problems facing TPE stem from matters out of its control”, said a DfT statement. “These include a backlog of recruitment and training drivers, reforming how the workforce operates and most notably, [train drivers union] ASLEF’s decision to withdraw rest day working – preventing drivers from taking on overtime shifts and filling in gaps on services.”

Image of Transpennine Express Nova train running on the East Coast Main Line near the Scottish Border
Transpennine Express Nova train running on the East Coast Main Line near the Scottish Border

The operator was hugely criticised when it was exposed for using the “pre-planned service alteration” clause as a means of hiding late cancellations from official statistics. The decision to bring Transpennine Express into the control of the operator of last resort is temporary, says the government. “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”, said Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, who cautioned that this is not a silver bullet that will fix the service at a stroke. Passengers can only hope the eventual outcome is “all change please”.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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