Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned train operator Transpennine Express (TPE) it may lose a lucrative government contract, while the firm blamed the Aslef union for its ban on overtime working.
The FirstGroup-owned company is caught up in a spat with the government after the PM threatened to pull its contract, because it was offering an “unacceptable” level of service.
The warning followed continued cancellations and disruptions; there are also reports by the FT, that Avanti West Coast may also lose its contract due to poor levels of service.
The company, which operates trains in the north of England and Scotland, said staff sickness and a post-pandemic training backlog had contributed to rail disruption and placed the bulk of the blame on Aself’s zero-overtime policy, which it claimed dramatically reduced its flexibility.
TPE urged Aslef to get back around the table, saying that it has had Department for Transport permission to offer a new overtime deal since late 2022.
“The biggest and most immediate positive impact for customers would be for Aslef to allow drivers to work overtime again,” said a Transpennine spokesperson.
“We know that the service being offered to customers is unacceptable at present and we want to assure our customers throughout the region that we are doing all we can to resolve a number of issues and deliver a train service they can rely on.”
The statement added that “late last year we were given authority from DfT to make a new overtime offer but this was rejected by Aslef without putting it to their members. The offer remains on the table and we encourage everyone who can influence the situation to work together to improve the situation for all.”
Aslef’s general secretary Mick Whelan challenged the railway operator’s claims and called it an excuse to avoid hiring more drivers.
In a letter seen by City A.M., Whelan said “whilst it is no surprise to Aslef that the company continues to try and blame train drivers for their abject failure to provide the service that they are contracted to provide, and are paid handsomely for by the taxpayer, it remains an utter disgrace.”
Responding to calls for a lifting of the overtime ban, he said: “A seven day a week railway should employ enough drivers to run it, without relying on people working on their allotted time off”.
Whelan added that Aslef will only agree to its workers taking on overtime if it is used to facilitate the training and recruitment of new drivers – not to run services – so any argument about timetables and flexibility would fall flat.
In his letter, he also brands Transpennine Express’ claim that they do not have a shortage of drivers as “laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that they have let down so many passengers and communities. ‘
“Whilst the pandemic inevitably had an effect on training, the idea that it is solely responsible for the atrocious service offered by TransPennine Express is for the birds. The stark reality is that they simply do not employ enough drivers.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “We constantly review operators’ performance, and all options regarding contracts remain on the table to ensure we reach a long-term solution that works for passengers.”
The dispute comes amidst a continued wave of strike action sweeps the country, with transport, emergency care, healthcare, teaching and civil service all affected as workers demand more pay and improved working conditions.
Recent data from the Office of Rail and Road reported rail reliability falling to record lows in December 2022, with Avanti West Coast, which is also owned by FirstGroup, the country’s worst performing.
Members of the Aslef union working for National Rail, which include Transpennine Express and Avanti West Coast, will strike on the 1 February and 3 February.