Revealed: north of England train line vastly under-reports cancellations

TransPennine Express uses ‘outrageous’ loophole in which services cancelled a day ahead do not appear in statistics

One of the north of England’s main railway companies is taking advantage of an “outrageous” legal loophole that allows it to vastly under-report cancellations, it has emerged.

Figures obtained by the Guardian show that during the October half-term holiday, TransPennine Express (TPE) cancelled 30% of all trains, and at least 20% each subsequent week until 20 November. Most of those services were cancelled in full, but some started or ended at different stations from those advertised on the current May 2022 timetable.

TPE did not dispute these figures and apologised, blaming staff sickness, an intensive crew training programme and infrastructure issues outside its control.

Yet when it submits its performance statistics to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the government body that collates information about train reliability, TPE will report cancellations of between 5.6% and 11.8% for the same period (23 October to 20 November).

That is because the ORR allows companies to in effect ignore trains preemptively cancelled up to 10pm the night before. Such cancellations are known as “p-coded services”. These trains do not then appear in industry systems, count towards official figures or allow automatic delay repay claims.

The lower rate of cancellations reported to the ORR will relate purely to on-the-day cancellations. That does not take into account the disruption of passengers who have booked in advance – for example, someone who has booked a train to get to Manchester airport to catch a flight, or who gets off a plane late at night to find themselves stranded.

About 25% of all TPE trains to and from the airport have been cancelled since 7 September, according to airport management. Rail travel to the terminals had already nosedived over the summer as cancellations became more routine, with a 25% drop in people arriving by public transport between May and August.

“Despite having taken steps to improve the reliability of services to Manchester airport, dozens of trains are still being cancelled, or terminating prior to the airport, at short notice every day. This causes significant cost and inconvenience for passengers, at a time when they need it least,” said Chris Woodroofe, Manchester airport’s managing director.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said that the p-code loophole “puts vested interests before the public interest. It’s outrageous, there’s no other word for it.”

He added: “People have lost trust in trains. If you are going to get a flight, to a match or to a gig, you can’t be sure you’ll get there or back and so there’s the insurance policy of the car. It’s really damaging for us as a city region.”

On Friday, the Greater Manchester combined authority agreed that if TPE and Avanti had not significantly reduced cancellations by its next meeting on 16 December, it would call on the government to strip both companies of their franchises.

A total of 294 TransPennine services were fully or part-cancelled the night before travel in the seven days to 25 November, the Guardian calculated. A total of 77 of those were on the Manchester to Cleethorpes line, leaving the seaside resort particularly badly isolated.

A spokesperson for TransPennine Express said: “While our service delivery is not where we want it to be, there has been a reduction in the number of cancellations we have had to make in recent weeks, and providing as reliable a service as possible for customers remains our biggest priority.

“We are sorry to anyone who has been affected by this ongoing disruption. This has been caused by high levels of train crew sickness, an intensive crew training programme (which includes a training backlog as a direct result of Covid), and infrastructure issues outside of our control, which combined have seen a number of ‘on-the-day’ cancellations or cancellations made the night before.

“To keep customers informed we ensure these cancellations are shown in industry systems and any pre-planned cancellations are shared via our website each evening. Anyone who is affected by their train being cancelled can apply for a refund.”

An ORR spokesperson said: “Services properly cancelled prior to 22:00 the night before the service day are not part of the rail cancellation data. Such changes take place for a wide variety of reasons; this definition remains consistent with historic data.

“We are currently working through a project to quantify relevant changes to service provision, to add context to our future statistical releases.”

• This article was amended on 28 November 2022 to correctly refer to the Office of Rail and Road, rather than the Office of Road and Rail as an earlier version said.


Helen Pidd North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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