FirstGroup stripped of TransPennine franchise
FirstGroup has been stripped of the poorly-performing TransPennine rail franchise after passengers suffered months of disruption.
The Department for Transport will appoint its Operator of Last Resort to take over delivery of passenger services on the network from 28 May. It serves passengers across the north of England and into Scotland.
It is the latest franchise to be taken back into public ownership after Southeastern in 2021. Northern rail was brought in public ownership in February 2020. The east coast main line, now called LNER, was nationalised in 2018.
FirstGroup also operates the west coast main line services under a joint venture called Avanti.
Commenting on the TransPennine decision, Mark Harper, Transport Secretary, said: “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.”
First Group said it was “disappointed” and pointed out that for a sustained period during the first year of the current contract, “TPE posted its best performance results for a decade”.
It added: “In 2022 TPE’s service levels declined due to circumstances not wholly within the operator’s control, mainly the challenging industrial relations environment including the withdrawal of longstanding industry-standard overtime arrangements while undertaking unprecedented driver training requirements due to infrastructure upgrades.
“Following the introduction of an agreed recovery plan in February 2023, cancellations have fallen by approximately 40% and will continue to do so as more drivers become available over the next few months.
“The Group is disappointed by the decision not to extend the National Rail Contract for TPE, given the investment and improvements we have made to the service over the years, which resulted in growing annual passenger numbers from 14m in 2004 to more than 29m before the pandemic.”
Graham Sutherland, chief executive, added: “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.”
Louise Haigh, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, said: “This endless cycle of shambolic private operators failing passengers, shows the Conservatives’ rail system is fundamentally broken.
“The next Labour government will end this sticking plaster politics by bringing our railways back into public ownership as contracts expire, ending the Tories’ failing system, and putting passengers back at the heart of our rail network.”