UK TransPennine Express to withdraw nearly new “Nova 3” train sets
UK passenger operator TransPennine Express (TPE) has confirmed its decision to discontinue the use of its “Nova 3” locomotive-hauled train sets, comprised of Class 68 locomotives and MkVa coaches, effective from the December 2023 timetable change. This announcement comes as part of a broader review of operations following the transfer of TPE to the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort. The almost new train sets are now being returned to their leasing agent with no immediate prospect of active service.
The removal of the commercial operators from the TransPennine Express franchise has had the unexpected knock-on effect of removing some of Britain’s newest trains from the network. The expensively procured coaches and locomotives, which were designated Nova 3 train sets by the operator, represented the pinnacle of ambitions for the north of England and south of Scotland operator. However, the trains have been scheduled for withdrawal as part of a radical review, carried out by the UK government’s Department for Transport, which is now the direct operator of the TPE network.
A very unsatisfactory postscript
The story of the Nova 3 programme dates back to the original invitation to tender for the TPE franchise, where the Department for Transport had initially specified the procurement of coaches, expecting the future operator to repurpose redundant five-car third-rail EMUs for use with diesel locomotives. However, in December 2015, FirstGroup, the eventual winner of the franchise process, opted to order new trains from manufacturer CAF in Spain, creating the Nova 3 sets. The trains commenced service on the Liverpool – Scarborough route in August 2019, powered by modified Class 68 locomotives subleased from Direct Rail Services.
However, the Nova 3 programme faced several challenges, including technical issues, slow driver training progress, the impact of Covid-19, and noise complaints from local residents near the maintenance facility in Scarborough. These issues limited the fleet’s usage, with very few sets being in service on a daily basis. Much of the fleet remained in secure storage without entering regular service. What may happen to those locomotives and rolling stock is now up for speculation. It’s been seen as a very unsatisfactory postscript to the troubled management of the franchise.
A very expensive mistake
FirstGroup’s management of the TPE franchise faced scrutiny and controversy, particularly over a scandalous level of cancelled services and abuse of an operational accounting process, widely deemed to have been used to conceal the true level of missed services. These revelations eventually led to the UK government taking control of the service through their Operator of Last Resort provision. Subsequently, an extensive review of TPE’s operations was conducted, leading to the decision to terminate the Nova 3 programme prematurely.
“The announcement below marks the end of a very expensive mistake”, said Peter Kennan, the Co-Chair of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce South Yorkshire Transport Forum. “The almost new Nova 3 trains are to be withdrawn from service with TransPennine Express from the December 2023 timetable change. I will now be seeking reassurances from Transport for the North’s Rail North committee that none of the class 185 [DMU] fleet will be moved away from the Liverpool/Manchester to Sheffield/Meadowhall/Doncaster and Cleethorpes route to bolster services over the North Trans-Pennine route, leaving South Yorkshire with three coach trains again, rather than six coach ones.”
Ready-made new operator
The DfT review of operations entails a temporary reduction in services beginning in December 2023. During this period, says gthe review, TPE will prioritise crew training and implement changes in crew scheduling. To compensate for the withdrawal of the Nova 3 sets, TPE will maximise the utilisation of other trains in its fleet, including their fleet of 19 Hitachi class 802 bi-mode train sets and a fleet of Class 185 DMUs. The DfT believes this will eliminate the need for locomotive-hauled trains. Originally, the TPE franchise had planned to release 15 of its 51 Class 185 DMUs. However, this decision was postponed in 2020, and the entire fleet will remain with TPE to meet capacity requirements as agreed with the Department for Transport.“We fought hard to get that extra capacity over the Hope Valley line from South Yorkshire to Greater Manchester”, added Keenan. “This announcement is clearly a threat to that. Hopefully not, but we’ll see.”
Despite being welcome in service, the units have not been flawless in operation. Cracks were discovered in some units recently, prompting concerns. As of now, there is no indication regarding the future use or disposition of the MkVa vehicles or the Class 68 locomotives that will be retired from TPE’s operations. There has been further consternation in the north of England, where another operator, CrossCountry Trains, has been in the process of withdrawing its small fleet of HST – High Speed Trains. Although elderly, the HST sets provided much needed seating capacity on the intensive routes operated by that company. There is some speculation that the redundant TPE trains could find a ready-made new operator. That would however mean extensive training and familiarisation, no matter how welcome a move that may be. As Peter Keenan might say: we’ll see.