Transport Secretary has ‘frank conversation’ with boss of struggling train firm

Transport Secretary Mark Harper has hauled in the boss of a struggling train operator for a “frank conversation”, the Cabinet minister said.

He met Matthew Golton of TransPennine Express (TPE), whose passengers have suffered from widespread delays and cancellations over the past year.

Analysis by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority found a total of 23,153 services will be cancelled by the FirstGroup-owned company this year if the current rate continues.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is examining a recovery plan produced by TPE, whose current contract expires in May.

Mr Harper told the PA news agency: “The rail minister and I are looking very closely at the level of performance and we’ll have to make a decision about that in due course, but my guiding light will be about the services that get delivered for passengers.

“That’s what my job is about. It’s about focusing on the passenger and their experience, and that’s a message we’ve delivered clearly to those that run TransPennine Express.

“The rail minister meets them weekly, and I’ve called in their managing director to have a frank conversation, so I hope that message has landed.”

West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin urged the Government to “get a grip” of TPE and claimed it would be “unthinkable” to hand the company a long-term contract renewal.

She said: “A fully functioning public transport network is crucial to our plans to boost the economy, achieve our climate ambitions and provide people with the opportunity to get on in life.

“Without action people will lose jobs, our youngsters will miss vital opportunities and the northern economy will go off the rails.”

TPE, which runs trains across northern England and into Scotland, has been badly affected by train drivers no longer volunteering to work paid overtime shifts.

A spokesman for the operator said it was “deeply disappointing” that drivers’ union Aslef rejected an offer of “almost £500 per shift” without putting it to a vote of members.

He added: “We know the service levels over the past year have not been good enough and we are pulling out all the stops to make things better.

“Restoring driver overtime is an important part of that process and we urge Aslef to act in the interests of the members, the customers and the communities across our network and accept the offer on the table in order to enable a rapid reduction in train cancellations.”

Mr Harper and Ms Brabin were among the speakers at the annual conference of Transport for the North – which advises the Government on the region’s transport needs – in Newcastle on Monday.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham told the event: “We are sending one clear message back down the M6 and the West Coast Main Line to London – and Westminster in particular – that the days of treating the north of England as second class citizens when it comes to transport are over.

“When the response comes to that call it is to be debated, but I think it’s not going away, and any government of any colour is going to eventually have to answer it.”

Jamie Driscoll, mayor of the North of Tyne, said London’s Tube network is “cross-subsidising their franchised bus network”, enabling people to “get around that city” without owning a car.

He went on: “Until we get that equivalent total transport network for not just the North East, but across the North, then we’re always going to find it difficult.

“It’s always going to limit the life chances of our people. It’s going to make it harder for us to lever investment.

“But you know what? I’m convinced we can do it. Talking to people here today, they’re up for it.”