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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Rob Parsons

Under-fire TransPennine Express should be stripped of its contract now, says top Labour MP

Leaving Doncaster Works in South Yorkshire in February 1923 and entering service exactly 100 years ago today (February 24), Flying Scotsman is synonymous with the golden age of rail travel and renowned as a feat of design and engineering.

Its achievements include hauling the inaugural non-stop London to Edinburgh train service in 1928, and becoming the UK’s first locomotive to reach 100mph six years later.

A century later, it's hard to imagine Sir Nigel Gresley, the designer of the iconic steam locomotive, being impressed with the unreliable train services passengers are forced to endure on a daily basis in Manchester and across the North.

READ MORE: She was trying to change her life - but a dangerous rapist hunted her down

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, who's written a poem as part of efforts to mark the centenary, said Flying Scotsman was “an emblem of when we could have pride” about the railways, adding: “My railway at the moment through Huddersfield is absolutely shameful and shambolic.”

What to do about TransPennine Express (TPE), the under-fire rail operator that runs trains from Huddersfield to Manchester, Leeds, York and the North East, was one of the big topics for political and business leaders at the Northern Transport Summit yesterday in Liverpool.

Just in the four weeks to February 4, TPE axed 1,048 services due to a shortage of train crew, far more than any operator. The firm blamed high sickness levels, a driver training programme and a lack of a 'rest day working' agreement where crews work on their days off to cover roster gaps.

But Labour's Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh is unimpressed by TPE's explanations and says the issues it faces "are no different than any other operator across the country has experienced".

The Sheffield MP tells this week's episode of The Northern Agenda podcast: "I would say the only people to blame for that are the management of TransPennine Express and we've just run out of road really, we've had enough of their behavior and their poor management."

Listen to the full interview with Louise Haigh on The Northern Agenda podcast:

She believes that rather than give TPE a chance to deliver on its latest improvement plan the Government should strip it of its contract immediately and hand it over to the nationalised 'operator of last resort' which runs services like Northern and LNER.

"It's not a total panacea because the system as a whole is broken, but it has delivered short term improvements in it, and it has been more reliable to be delivered by the operator of last resort. So we think that is definitely in the best interest of passengers."

Speaking earlier at the conference, government Rail Minister Huw Merriman said TPE services were not good enough but whoever took over services "is going to end up in the exact same situation because the situation is underlying reform".

He called for the union Aslef to accept the Government's offer to restore rest day working on TPE, which expired a few months ago and wasn't renewed, so drivers can be trained up to ensure in the short term fewer trains are cancelled.

Rail Minister Huw Merriman said TPE services were not good enough (Press Association)

The Tory Minister explained that with sickness rates of 14% on TPE and a lack of rest-day working, if a driver calls in sick their train has to be cancelled. And he said train crews can book holidays 48 hours in advance, making it impossible to plan.He said: "Tescos wouldn't operate like this. And our passengers need the trains to operate in the same way that if you go to Tesco, with the exception of the fruit and veg aisle, and get your service, that's what you've gone there for."

Meanwhile first prize for not reading the room goes to the representative of the West Coast Partnership, who suggested the North spends too much time "talking down our infrastructure and complaining about how it's broken".

The questioner, whose organisation is responsible for the under-performing inter-city services between London and the North West, asked members of one conference panel how we "get better at rebuilding public confidence and trust in transport".

Panel events at Northern conferences are generally genial, collegiate affairs. But a furious Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership fired back that West Coast Partnership, which sponsored the conference, should apologise "what you've done to the Northern economy" before talking about doing a repair job.

He said the "disjointed relationship" between rail bosses and the workforce "has led to a terrible situation, which has disproportionately affected Northern cities".

Emma Degg of the North West Business Leadership Team added: "The service on the West Coast Main Line for my businesses would not happen in London and the Southeast, full stop and I am telling you, we are losing millions of pounds of investment."

A chastened West Coast Partnership official was forced to stand up and tell the audience: "I do apologise and we're working really, really hard to fix the problems."


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