Transpennine Express, which runs trains in northern England and parts of Scotland, has become the fourth railway service to be nationalised by the UK government in just five years.

Ministers stepped in to seize control of the struggling operator, owned by UK-listed FirstGroup, after months of cancelled trains and poor performance.

The Department for Transport said Transpennine’s contract would not be renewed on May 28 and instead it would be run by the “operator of last resort” owned by the state.

About one in six TPE services were cancelled in March, the highest rate in the UK, causing misery for commuters in northern towns and cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

“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,” said transport secretary Mark Harper.

The company has blamed its poor service on driver shortages caused by a backlog of training and drivers’ union Aslef’s refusal to sign up to an overtime working agreement, which is common practice in the industry.

TPE is the latest in a string of failed private contracts to be nationalised, following East Coast Main Line in 2018, Northern Rail in 2020 and Southeastern in 2021. 

FirstGroup said it was “disappointed” with the decision and that the disruption had been due to “circumstances not wholly within the operator’s control, mainly the challenging industrial relations environment”.

One of the company’s other flagship rail operations, Avanti West Coast, was handed two temporary contract extensions by the DfT after suffering a similar collapse in relations with Aslef, although its services have largely recovered.

The government agreed “a significant number of problems facing Transpennine Express stem from matters out of its control”.

Harper said there had been “some improvements” since the government put TPE on a recovery plan in February, but said he had decided that the contract and underlying relationships needed to be “reset”.

He insisted that the decision to put TPE under government control was “temporary” and that he intended to return it to the private sector. Harper called for Aslef, which in April rejected a pay offer from Britain’s 16 train companies, to end its long-running industrial action.

“We have played our part, but Aslef now need to play theirs by calling off strikes and the rest day working ban, and putting the very fair and reasonable pay offer to a democratic vote of their members.”

Tracy Brabin, Labour mayor for West Yorkshire, described the move as a “victory for northern mayors” who had called on the government to intervene.

“We’ve been urging government to act for almost a year, as delays and cancellations have damaged our economy and subjected commuters in the north to sheer misery,” she said.

The railway system was hit hard by the Covid pandemic, requiring £14bn of government subsidy to keep the operators afloat, and the industry has since struggled to cope with changing travel patterns caused by a rise in working from home. 

In 2020, ministers reversed much of the privatisation of the 1990s by taking control of the industry’s finances and contracting private companies to operate trains.

The government has outlined plans for a permanent new system under which companies will lose most of the old “risk and reward” exposure to passenger numbers and ticket revenues, and instead just be paid set contractor fees for running trains.

FirstGroup shares fell 4 per cent in early trading on Thursday. The company, which runs several other operators including South Western Railway and Great Western Railway, said the government decision “does not alter our belief in the important role of private rail operators”.

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