Paul Salveson asks where now for TransPennine Express?
The news that train operator TransPennine Express (TPE) was to be transferred into the public sector, stripping First Group of its contract, came as little surprise. Despite new trains and a major recruitment programme, the company struggled to run a reliable service, leaving thousands of passengers angry and frustrated. TPE is a major player in the UK transport scene, providing services across the North of England and into Scotland, under contract to the Department for Transport.
So, what happens now? The secretary of state, Mark Harper, stressed that TPE’s transfer to the public sector, under the wing of the unfortunately titled ‘Operator of Last Resort’ (OLR), was a temporary measure before the company would be returned to the private sector. For now, it joins Southeastern, LNER and Northern as part of OLR’s expanding portfolio. Northern runs most local and regional services across the North of England, often along the same routes as TPE. The devolved governments for Scotland and Wales own their domestic rail services.
Harper stressed that the move into public ownership was not a “silver bullet” that would solve all TPE’s problems. There remain difficult issues around industrial relations, as well as major infrastructure works forming part of the TransPennine route upgrade between Manchester and Leeds, which includes long-awaited electrification.
A good start has been made with the appointment of Chris Jackson, former regional director at Northern, as ‘interim’ managing director. Jackson is an experienced and well-liked rail professional, and he will inherit a good management team, though many will feel battered and bruised by the experiences of the last few months. He will be the ideal person to restore morale and put a spring back into TPE’s steps, being able to capitalise on the recovery plan that was already in place and beginning to show some, albeit limited, results. A bigger challenge will be negotiating with ASLEF and RMT. A good start would be for ASLEF to suspend its industrial action, including the crippling overtime ban, and work with the new leadership to make TPE a showpiece for what a good quality railway company should look like, both as a service to passengers and as an employer. That needs TPE’s new management team being given the sort of freedom that their LNER colleagues enjoy.
However, there’s a need for some longer-term thinking about how TPE should fit into the bigger picture. Currently, railways in the UK are rudderless, lacking any sort of ‘guiding mind’ to bring coherence and direction to the industry at a time when a sustainable alternative to the car is desperately needed. The Government has proposed setting up ‘Great British Railways’ to bring just that focus to rail; but progress has been slow, with the project tarnished by coming out of the Boris Johnson era, when Grant Shapps was in charge of transport.
The current situation in the North of England, with both TPE and Northern being in the state sector, offers opportunities for fresh thinking, which Labour should seize on instead of repeating glib mantras about nationalisation (25% of all train operators are now in the state sector and infrastructure is controlled by state-run Network Rail).
The last thing either TPE or Northern want is a return to the private sector, though a long period of uncertainty and ‘interim’ management won’t be helpful either. The most straightforward approach would be to keep the two operators under state ownership. However, there is a growing appetite amongst Northern politicians to get control of their rail network; taking on responsibilities for the two Northern operators would be quite an attractive proposition.
The most obvious vehicle would be Transport for the North (TfN), a sub-national transport body run by a consortium of local authorities but without the powers enjoyed by Transport for London. That should change, with more resources and expertise given to TfN. The Department for Transport has the power to transfer responsibility for both contracts to a body such as TfN if it chose to do so.
If that happened, TfN could, if it wanted to be more radical, set up the two operations as social enterprises. There are business models out there to guide them, including the experience of Welsh Water and other larger businesses. An arms-length mutual approach, in which any surplus is ploughed back into the business, is the sort of innovative approach which Labour should be looking at. A significant amount of worker and passenger involvement could form part of the structure.
A new, socially-owned TransPennine Express, working closely with Northern, could pick up the threads that have been lost over the last couple of years and contribute towards the creation of a railway of which the North could be truly proud.