People in London used to think I was making it up when I told them what an ordeal it was planning a journey on TransPennine Express (TPE). It sounded so absurd. The angst began as soon as you dared to book a ticket, wondering whether the train you had chosen to get you to Manchester Airport for a flight, to Leeds for an interview or to Cleethorpes for the seaside, would actually run. The niggling feeling: maybe I should drive, just to be safe?
The night before, you needed to stay up until 10pm, when TPE would publish a list of “planned cancellations” for the following day. There were regularly 50 cancellations, sometimes 100, invariably blamed on staff shortages and sometimes the rail unions too. You’d then have to make alternative plans which might involve leaving the house before the kids woke up, booking a taxi or begging your employers to let you join that meeting by Zoom instead.
If you persisted in travelling by train, when you arrived at the station the next day, the original service you had booked would have disappeared from the departure board. It was as if it had never existed. That’s because TPE had cancelled it using what rail industry insiders call p-codes, which until very recently – and thanks in large part to the Guardian’s exposure of their abuse – were not reflected in the official cancellation statistics. Originally intended for cancellations beyond a rail operator’s control, such as after a landslide, TPE landed upon p-codes as a handy way of disguising just how appalling its service was.
I only found out about p-coding when I wrote an opinion piece moaning about terrible northern trains, which mentioned that TPE had cancelled 5.8% of all trains in the previous 12 weeks. Someone in the know wrote in to say that the real figure was between 20% and 30%, and explained the chicanery behind p-coding.
In January, the Office of Rail and Road, the regulator, ordered TPE and other offenders to stop misusing p-codes and supply statistics that showed the full scale of misery experienced by passengers. The change was stark: for the four weeks between 5 February and 4 March, TPE’s cancellation score worsened from 7.2% to 23.8% when adjusted to include p-coding because of a shortage of available crew.
The result is an utterly miserable experience that is leading more and more people to give up on the railways altogether and learn how to drive, buy a car, or find a job that allows them to work from home. I’ve heard of people losing jobs, quitting college, moving house, all because of TPE’s scandalously bad service.
Only those with no alternative option – or those dedicated to public transport – continue to take the risk. Like Adam Leyton, the current world record holder for most capital cities visited in a day by public transport. On Wednesday evening he was trying to get home to Edinburgh from Manchester after 8pm. His direct train was cancelled and he ended up having to change to get to Carlisle and then take a taxi all the way to the Scottish capital. I just looked at the timetable for tonight, Thursday evening, and the same train, the 20.22 is cancelled again. Staff told him the service regularly fails to run.
Lawrence Davies, a music lecturer at the University of Liverpool, has the misfortune to rely on what he calls the “TransPantomime” to commute to work from Newcastle three times a week during term time. He was a veteran of the 10pm train check, regularly creeping out of the house at 6am and often having to change trains twice on what should be a direct service. The results are truly life-ruining. Less time with family, hours wasted, opportunities lost. “Teaching at 3pm = 8am train, arriving 11am. Daren’t cut it finer,” Davies says.
The cancellations aren’t the only problem with TPE. Helen Johnson was travelling from Sheffield to Manchester on Thursday morning and all the toilets were broken. “We were told anyone needing the loo could get off at Stockport and the train would wait while they used the station toilets. The train was half the number of carriages it should have been and was terminating at [Manchester] Piccadilly instead of going on to Liverpool,” she says.
With the government taking over the contract, it can surely only get better – we hope.