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TransPennine Express: Operational Performance

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

13. Whether he has had discussions with TransPennine Express on its recent operational performance. (903147)

The Department, which manages the TPE contract in partnership with Transport for the North through the Rail North Partnership, is in regular dialogue with the operator, as we seek to stabilise the current service provision and provide passengers with a reliable timetable. Due to high levels of absence, industrial action and much higher than predicted driver departures, TPE will continue to face challenges, even as it restores some services.

How is it that in Ukraine—war-torn Ukraine—they manage to cancel fewer trains and have a more reliable service than TransPennine Express? Is it not now time to cancel the TransPennine Express contract?

The contract for TransPennine Express comes up for renewal in May. Anybody who takes that contract on will be faced with the exact same issues we have. Sickness rates are currently at 14%. We have no rest-day working agreement in place, despite it previously being the highest rate offered across the network. A number of drivers have left, some during covid, and while 113 drivers have been recruited, it takes on average 18 months to train a driver through that network. All those issues remain to be fixed, regardless of who the operator will be. I can assure the right hon. Lady that if the operation does not improve, other decisions will be taken in addition to the points I have just raised.

Mr Speaker, as a north-west MP, you will be aware of the disgraceful service level offered by Avanti. My constituents have to deal with TransPennine Express on the one hand and also Avanti, so it is a double whammy for the people of Stockport. It has recently been revealed that between 18 September and 12 November 2022, TransPennine Express pre-cancelled between 250 and 450 trains per week through the use of P-coded notices, meaning that thousands of people were left stranded. P-coded notices were first introduced for cancellations caused by exceptional circumstances but now appear to be used routinely by private rail operators. Does the Minister agree that this is an abuse of the P-coded notice system, and has he been speaking to TransPennine Express about that abuse?

As the Secretary of State said earlier, I will be speaking to the Office of Rail and Road about P-coding, because I feel it needs a good look. P-coding makes a lot of sense, to ensure that passengers are told on the day they travel whether the train will be operating. If rosters have not been put together because of staff shortages, that makes absolute sense, but the current levels on TPE give me concern, so I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look at that. P-coding has been used a lot across the network due to the weather-related issues, where we have known that we cannot operate services the following day and want to let passengers know in advance. Finally, I assure him that performance-related fees, which take up the largest part of train operator payments, do of course take into account P-coding, as we would with other cancellations.

The Minister must surely agree that this is simply not good enough. In November, he assured us that the new timetable would be deliverable. This week, the results are in and the service has never been worse. This morning alone, at least 123 services have been cancelled or disrupted on TransPennine Express. He cannot pretend that the management are blameless in this farce. The north cannot afford to continue like this any longer, so will he strip TransPennine Express of its contract and bring it under the operator of last resort?

The operator of last resort does a great job, but I also hear criticisms from Members across the House with regard to Northern Rail, which also has higher than average cancellations, and Northern Rail is operated by the operator of last resort. I am also keen to ensure that the operator of last resort has a manageable portfolio. Nothing I have said in the House today or in the Select Committee yesterday absolves the management of any blame. I have said that this situation requires action from all in responsible positions, and if it cannot be turned around, decisions will be made.