TransPennine Express, which runs trains across northern England and parts of Scotland, has become the fourth rail service to be nationalized by the UK government in just five years.
Ministers stepped in to take control of the struggling operator, owned by UK-listed Firstgroup, after months of canceled trains and poor performance.
The Department for Transport said TransPennine’s contract would not be renewed on May 28 and would instead be run by a state-owned “operator of last resort”.
Almost one in six TPE services were canceled in March, the highest rate in the UK, causing misery for passengers in northern towns and cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
“After months of passengers and northern businesses suffering constant cancellations, I have taken the decision to make TransPennine Express an operator of last resort,” Transport Secretary Mark Harper said.
The company blamed its poor service on a driver shortage due to a backlog of training and drivers’ union Aslef refusing to sign up to an overtime working agreement, a common practice in the industry.
TPE is the latest in a series of failed private contracts to be nationalised, following East Coast Main Line in 2018, Northern Rail in 2020 and Southeastern in 2021.
FirstGroup said it was “disappointed” by the decision and that the disruption was caused by “circumstances not entirely within the operator’s control, principally the challenging industrial relations environment”.
One of the company’s other flagship rail operations, Avanti West Coast, was handed two temporary contract extensions by the DfT after suffering a similar collapse in relations with Aslef, although its services have largely recovered.
The government agreed “a significant number of the problems facing TransPennine Express are caused by factors beyond its control”.
Harper said there had been “some improvements” since the government put TPE on a recovery plan in February, but said he had decided the contract and underlying relationship needed to be “reset”.
He stressed that the decision to place TPE under government control was “temporary” and that he intended to return it to the private sector. Harper called on Assalef, who rejected pay offers from 16 of Britain’s train companies in April, to end his long-running industrial action.
“We have done our part, but Aslef now needs to play its part by lifting the ban on strikes and overtime work and putting a very fair and reasonable pay offer to the democratic vote of its members.”
Tracy Brabin, the Labor mayor of West Yorkshire, described the move as a “victory for northern mayors” who called on the government to intervene.
“We have been urging the government to act for almost a year now, as the delays and cancellations have hurt our economy and caused great suffering to commuters in the north,” she said.
The railway system was hit hard by the Covid pandemic, with operators needing £14bn in government subsidies to keep afloat, and the industry has since struggled to cope with changing travel patterns due to the rise of working from home.
In 2020, ministers reversed much of the privatization of the 1990s by taking control of the industry’s finances and contracting private companies to run the trains.
The government has outlined plans for a permanent new system under which companies will lose the old “risk and reward” exposure to passenger numbers and much of ticket revenue, and instead be set on contractor fees to run trains.
FirstGroup shares were down 4 percent in early trading on Thursday. The company, which runs several other operators including South Western Railway and Great Western Railway, said the government’s decision “does not change our belief in the important role of private rail operators”.