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Transpennine Express’s contract will not be renewed or extended

Mr Deputy Speaker, let me start by thanking the entire transport industry, and officials across government, for their professionalism and hard work over the last weekend.

Tens of thousands of people travelled to Windsor and Central London for the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III and Her Majesty Queen Camilla.

Getting the public around efficiently and safely took months of planning and preparation…

And special thanks must go to Great Western Railways for putting on additional services…

As well as Network Rail and South Western Railways, who facilitated the biggest movement of military personnel by the rail industry in over 50 years for the coronation.

It meant people from across the UK, indeed around the world, were able to unite in celebration during what was a truly historic moment.

Mr Speaker, in my most recent oral statement to the House, I made clear this government’s commitment to deliver a railway that works for passengers, businesses and the taxpayer.

And where services are not up to scratch, we’re holding operators to account…

And where there are systemic weaknesses in the industry, we’re pushing ahead with reform.

So I wish to update the House today with our progress, starting with the future operator of the TransPennine Express (TPE) contract.

TransPennine Express

Since I took office, I’ve been clear that First TPE’s service levels have, for too long, been unacceptable.

Passengers, including many honourable and right honourable members across this House, have faced significant disruption, including regular cancellations and poor levels of communication.

The underlying reasons behind this vary, but what’s clear is the twin challenges of coronavirus (COVID-19) and industrial action have left their mark.

First TPE’s driver training backlog now stretches to nearly 4,000 days.

Which means that, at any one time, it can only draw upon 80% of its total driver workforce.

Add to this a breakdown in relations between the operator and driver union ASLEF and, all told, there simply haven’t been enough drivers to run the planned timetable.

Inevitably, passengers have borne the brunt…facing:

  • cancellation rates of up to 23% on Monday to Friday services and‚Ķ.
  • gaps in services, on some routes, of up to 6 hours

That clearly isn’t good enough….

A point I have made directly with First Group, which owns first TPE….

And which my Honourable Friend the Rail Minister has made in weekly meetings with the Rail North Partnership, where Transport for the North jointly manage first TPE’s contract with the Department for Transport (DfT).

We will always hold operators to account for matters within their control Mr Deputy Speaker.

We’ll give them a chance to put things right.

But despite a recovery plan put in place since February, there remain significant challenges, underpinned by ASLEF’s distinct lack of co-operation.

To achieve the performance levels I expect…that passengers deserve…. and that the northern economy needs….it’s clear that both the contract and the underlying relationships must be reset.

I have therefore decided not to renew or extend First TPE’s contract, when it ends on the 28th May.

Instead, I am exercising my Operator of Last Resort duties and directly awarding a new TPE contract to a public sector operator who will operate it on my behalf.

As Transport Secretary, my obligation, first and foremost, is to secure passenger rail services on which TPE passengers can rely.

That requires a new approach, one which the OLR is best placed to deliver in these circumstances.

And most significantly, it provides an opportunity to reset relations between management and all stakeholders – from passengers to trade unions.

I have asked my officials to review services in the North to help drive efficiency and find better ways to deliver for passengers across the region.

And I will ask all interested parties, including the northern mayors and Transport for the North, to engage with the government on this work.

Now, whilst today’s decision will be welcomed by many….

…And whilst it shows a government alive to the concerns of passengers….

As my Honourable Friend the Rail Minister and I have made clear, it would be misguided for anyone to think this is an instant solution.

The problems First TPE faced won’t disappear overnight.

Any operator facing industrial action and a union-co-ordinated ban on overtime working will struggle to run a reliable service.

So I invite those who have long called for today’s decision….

…Including unions, northern mayors and colleagues across the House…

To work constructively with me and my Honourable Friend the Rail Minister to fix the underlying problems and help return service levels to where they should be.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the OLR is just the next stop on the line, not the terminus station.

And once market conditions allow, we intend to subject this, and indeed all contracts both private sector and those under the OLR, to competitive tendering.

Evidence versus ideology

Mr Speaker, there will be some, unfortunately, who use today’s decision to further their ideological ends.

To argue that this somehow justifies all rail contracts being brought under public control.

That would be a mistake.

The majority of taxpayers do not use the railways regularly…

But they could be saddled with the huge financial cost of nationalisation……..

…Only to inherit the industry’s problems with no plan to fix them.

Nationalisation is a soundbite not a solution.

And this government will always be guided by the evidence, to help make the best decisions for passengers.

Which is why earlier this year….

…Having seen the noticeable improvements on Avanti West Coast….

I resisted calls to bring the franchise into public ownership.

I extended Avanti’s contract by 6 months…

A decision vindicated…….with Avanti-caused cancellation rates at the end of March falling to 1.4%, from 13.2% in January….and continuing to improve despite ongoing challenges.

Industrial action

Mr Deputy Speaker, let me now turn to industrial action….

For months, the Rail Minister and I have worked hard to change the tone of the dispute and help facilitate fair and reasonable pay offers for workers.

But in negotiations with train operating companies…

…The RMT and ASLEF are refusing to even put those pay offers to a vote of their members.

This is despite RMT members who work for Network Rail voting overwhelmingly to accept a similar deal earlier this year.

Instead, the RMT have balloted for yet more industrial action….

And along with ASLEF, both have cynically called strikes that will cripple the network during the Eurovision song contest this week.

We are hosting Eurovision because last year’s winner Ukraine can’t….

It will be an event attended by displaced Ukrainians that have fled Putin’s war as the House has just heard.

So it beggars belief why unions have chosen to disrupt such an internationally symbolic event….

One that not only presents a united front against Russia’s aggression, but shows solidarity with Ukraine’s resistance.

My message on behalf of fed-up passengers is to say to those union leaders….

Call off your strikes…

Put the latest fair and reasonable pay offers to a vote…

And give your members a say on their future.

Reform

With or without union support, however, industry must modernise to avoid permanent decline.

And, Mr Deputy Speaker, we’re building unstoppable momentum towards rail reform.

As I set out in my Bradshaw address in February…

I announced that Derby will be the location for Great British Railways’ new headquarters.

And today, I can report progress against the commitment I made to extend single leg pricing to the rest of the LNER network.

Tickets will go on sale from 14 May 2023 for travel from 11 June 2023.

And it means LNER passengers will benefit from simpler, more flexible and better value ticketing….

Removing the frustration that a single ticket can cost almost as much as a return.

Conclusion

Mr Deputy Speaker, since becoming Transport Secretary, my approach has been to listen to the experts, weigh up the evidence and make decisions in the interests of the travelling public.

Today’s announcements show a government tuned in to the concerns of passengers in the north…

Unafraid to take tough decisions to deliver better services…

And relentlessly focussed on modernising our railways whilst protecting passengers from the effects of industrial action.

That’s what the British people deserve; it’s what we’re delivering…

And I commend this statement to the House.

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