Government stepped in to end ‘misery’ on the railways because it was ‘embarrassed’

First Group lost the contract to run TransPennine Express services in May (Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)
First Group lost the contract to run TransPennine Express services in May (Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

First Group lost the contract to run services in May and the Government’s Operator of Last Resort (OLR) took over, after passengers were forced to endure months of severe disruption as thousands of services were cancelled.

It came after a group of Labour mayors in the North, including Ms Brabin, Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham and South Yorkshire’s Oliver Coppard, had been urging the Government to intervene.

“Collectively we stood together and I think we embarrassed the Government into listening to us and putting TransPennine in public control,” Ms Brabin told the Great Northern Conference in Bradford.

West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin (Photo: Ian Forsyth)
West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin (Photo: Ian Forsyth)

“While that’s not a silver bullet, there is some greater stability.”

She also said the Government’s plans to shut almost every railway ticket office in England is “just a smoke screen for jobs cut” and Northern mayors are prepared to challenge the decision in court, adding: “We’re not going to roll over and accept this”.

Transport for the North has warned around 85 per cent of ticket offices in the North – excluding those run by Merseyrail – will close, leaving just 27 of the current 183.

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “It is completely wrong to suggest the Government intervention in Transpennine Express was due to anything other than concern for passengers who rely on the services.

“The department was already working with the operator to stabilise services and, when this unfortunately didn’t result in improvements, it was brought into the Operator of Last Resort as soon as its contract ended.”

Last week, Rail Minister Huw Merriman said nationalising TransPennine Express (TPE) services was the “right decision”, as passengers have seen improvements.

He said there were teething problems after the takeover – as more than a quarter of services were being cancelled by the end of May – but that cancellation rate has fallen to 5 per cent in weeks when train drivers and rail workers are not taking industrial action.

The OLR helped secure a rest-day working agreement with the train drivers union Aslef in June and Mr Merriman said this cut the cancellation rate as drivers could work overtime for the first time since December 2021, cover for absent colleagues and help train new recruits.

Only half the TPE drivers were trained to operate services on all routes before the agreement was reached, but that number has increased to 63 per cent.

Mr Merriman said the Government gave First Group “every opportunity” to make improvements, but realised the company’s relationship with Aslef was beyond repair and it would be unable to negotiate a rest-day working agreement.

It comes as the Government is analysing more than 680,000 responses to the consultation on its plans for widespread ticket office closures.

There has been a backlash from trade unions and disability groups, who claim it will lead to job losses and make it more difficult for disable passengers to travel.

It comes as the rail industry is under pressure from the Government to save money, as revenues have dropped by 30 per cent since the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operating companies, said it wants to close offices as fewer passengers use ticket offices and it wants “more staff available to give face-to-face help to customers“.