Wouldn’t TransPennine Express passengers rather have a reliable rail service than ‘random acts of kindness’?

On schedule? A TransPennine Express train at Liverpool Lime Street (Tony Miles/TransPennine Express)
On schedule? A TransPennine Express train at Liverpool Lime Street (Tony Miles/TransPennine Express)

Rail passengers using TransPennine Express have every right to feel they are getting a raw deal. The train operator performed so badly last year that it was taken back into public ownership in May 2023.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said that under previous ownership by FirstGroup the rail firm had made “continuous cancellations”.

Now, we learn that TransPennine Express is planning, well, continuous cancellations from December.

In a document named Our Plan for the Future: A Prospectus, the state-run train operator says: “We’ll run a slightly reduced timetable as this will enable us to improve reliability, trust and confidence.”

The key TransPennine Express link between Manchester and Leeds will reduce from four trains per hour each way to three. The quickest journey between Liverpool and Newcastle will be extended by 22 minutes.

The cuts will last for a year, the train operator says. From December 2024 it expects “robust and reliable increases in services”.

Part of the cunning plan is to offload the most modern trains in the TransPennine Express fleet. The nearly new Nova 3 rolling stock will be handed back to the leasing company.

The online journal RailTech says: “Much of the fleet remained in secure storage without entering regular service. What may happen to those locomotives and rolling stock is now up for speculation.” One possible customer is thought to be CrossCountry, which shares part of the East Coast main line with TransPennine Express.

The new managing director of TransPennine Express, Chris Jackson, faces an uphill struggle. Passenger numbers have fallen more sharply since Covid than on other operators, with barely 60 per cent of pre-pandemic traffic. And of those on board, an estimated 3.5 per cent don’t bother buying a ticket (“an additional investigation and prosecution manager” is promised).

The document is blunt about the high rate of cancellations that have so infuriated passengers, presumably sending them back into their cars: “The operation is too complex for its overall size with too many different classes of rolling stock resulting in difficult, costly and time-consuming driver training demands.

“When this is coupled with complexity in rostering and crew changes the result is poor service delivery, exacerbated during periods of service disruption, when the lack of flexibility within crew terms and conditions can make recovering the service more complex.”

In the interim, passengers may be surprised and delighted that TransPennine Express is aiming to win back passenger loyalty with what it calls a “package of ‘surprise and delight’ events”.

From time to time, coffee, cakes and ice cream will be handed out at stations. But what really intrigues me is that the train operator also promises “random acts of kindness via the recently introduced ‘Charm’ app”.

This software enables staff to hand out gift vouchers worth up to £50.

“They can be used to deal with disgruntled customers at times of disruption or enhance the experience for a customer undertaking a special journey,” TransPennine Express says.

More promisingly, for the vast majority of prospective passengers, there is a £1 Advance ticket offer early in 2024. You (probably) read about it here first. The aim: “To incentivise customers to make a journey and see for themselves that the service has improved.” That ticket will probably be digital (75 per cent are) and bought through Trainline (70 per cent are). I calculate from that figure that more than half the passengers who bothered to buy a ticket booked with the online agent.

The real attraction that TransPennine Express desperately needs will have nothing to do with coffee, cakes or £1 tickets: it will depend on the TransPennine Route Upgrade, allowing trains between Manchester and York to travel at the 125mph customary on intercity lines to and from London.

Only then will TransPennine Express be able to secure its stated mission: “Delivering a premium travel experience – connecting communities across the north of England and into Scotland.”