Rishi Sunak has nationalised one of Britain’s biggest train operators after passengers suffered months of significant disruption and regular cancellations.
FirstGroup, the London-listed transport group, will be stripped of the TransPennine Express franchise at the end of this month.
It is the latest rail operator to be brought back into public ownership after Southeastern was nationalised in 2021. Fellow red wall seat operator Northern Rail was brought in public ownership in February 2020. The east coast main line, now called LNER, was nationalised in 2018.
FirstGroup also runs much-criticised west coast main line services under a joint venture called Avanti.
Mark Harper, Transport Secretary, said: “After months of commuters and Northern businesses bearing the brunt of continuous cancellations, I’ve made the decision to bring TransPennine Express into Operator of Last Resort.
“This is not a silver bullet and will not instantaneously fix a number of challenges being faced.”
FirstGroup hit out at the TransPennine Express decision, saying it was "disappointed" and claiming it had made improvements to services. Passenger numbers rose from 14 million in 2004 when FirstGroup took the contract over to 29 million before the pandemic.
The operator, which covers an area across northern England and into Scotland, has been badly affected by drivers who are members of the Aslef union no longer volunteering to work paid overtime shifts.
Latest figures show TPE cancelled the equivalent of one in six services across most of March.
Mr Harper added: “We have played our part but Aslef now need to play theirs by calling off strikes and the rest day working ban, putting the very fair and reasonable pay offer to a democratic vote of their members.”
Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup chief executive, said: “[We]are very proud to have served the communities across Northern England and into Scotland, carrying millions of passengers and introducing new trains, new routes and more seats for our customers.
“Our team have worked extremely hard to improve services, including by recruiting and training more drivers than ever before. We have also worked closely with the DfT and Transport for the North on an agreed recovery plan as well as an improved offer on overtime working for our drivers.
“Today’s decision does not alter our belief in the important role of private rail operators in the delivery of vital, environmentally-friendly transport for customers and communities across the UK.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus, said: “TransPennine Express passengers have endured an unacceptable service for too long. In our latest survey TransPennine Express was rated the joint worst performing train operator and just 67pc of passengers were satisfied with how punctual their journey was.
“Whichever organisation runs TransPennine Express rail services, under whatever contractual arrangements, passengers will want to see a much more reliable service. It’s clear that passengers deserve better, and the operator needs to take action to improve performance and build back passenger trust.”