One of the UK’s worst-performing railway operators issued a “do not travel” alert on Wednesday, blaming an internal computer failure which resulted in a third of all of its trains being canceled yet again.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, urged the government to “step in – now” after TransPennine Express (TPE) urged against all travel on Wednesday.
He said the firm should be given a formal notice to improve or be stripped of its contract, as happened in autumn with Avanti West Coast, which has the same parent company, FirstGroup. The issues were “entirely of the company’s own making”, said Burnham’s counterpart in West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin.
TPE operates trains on three key routes from Liverpool and Manchester to Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Kathryn O’Brien, TPE’s customer service and operations director, blamed “a significant rostering system issue”, which was resulting in “a high level of unplanned cancellations and disruption across our network”.
A TPE spokesperson clarified this was “a computer/software issue rather than a staffing problem” and that the firm anticipated canceling “around a third of our timetabled services today”.
But for months the company has been canceling dozens of trains at 10pm the night before travel, using something called the “P-code”, which means they don’t “count” in official statistics and in effect disappear from the timetable. On Monday 12 December, the first full day of the new winter timetable, the firm canceled 32% of trains. This was before any talk of the IT problems.
Burnham said the government should issue TPE with a formal warning before Christmas. TPE needs to be explicitly told that if it doesn’t improve by mid-January, their contract will be removed. The government has got to stop this chaos and make clear that TPE has one last chance. At the moment, they are not even on probation,” he said.
Brabin said: “It is completely unacceptable that TransPennine Express have told passengers not to travel because they have canceled so many of their services today.
This is a problem entirely of the company’s own making. I and other northern mayors have been calling on the government to put them on notice to improve or have their privilege taken away. The government needs to do this now and get an urgent grip.”
O’Brien apologised to customers and said the firm was “working hard internally and with our system provider to resolve the situation as soon as possible.”
She added: “We are doing all we can to keep customers on the move, but while problems persist, we advise customers not to travel and to seek alternative means of transportation.”
Official statistics from the Office of Rail and Road suggested TPE canceled 6.4% of trains in the quarter to September 30. But the firm’s real cancellation rate has been far higher when P-coded cancellations are included, running at between 20% and 32% in recent weeks.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The level of disruption on the rail network is well above what should be expected and passengers, particularly in the North, have suffered for too long.
“Following his meeting with Northern Mayors, the Transport Secretary has agreed a four-pronged approach to improve rail services in the region.
“We will continue to closely monitor service levels and pressure operators to deliver improvements.”