Created out of two existing franchises, First North Western and Arriva Trains Northern, First TransPennine Express (FTPE) runs inter-city train services on three main routes across the North of England linking Liverpool and Manchester with Leeds, York, and even the Lake District and beyond. This network was expanded further in December 2007 to include connections from Manchester to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
In the wider context of today’s rail market the FTPE franchise is one that is arguably in its prime. At its foundation in 2004 the business was carrying nearly 13.5 million passenger journeys per year – a figure which has nearly doubled to date. As a result, FTPE is perhaps the fastest growing train operator in terms of passenger numbers within the UK rail sector.Pushing performance
The franchise has also proven its ability to deliver on its commitments. Having pledged to replace the existing train fleet at the start of its term, FTPE introduced 51 new Class 185 diesel trains just two years later at a cost of £250 million. This was backed up by a further investment of £12 million into station infrastructure and over £5 million in staff training and development.
These endeavours have not gone unnoticed by the travelling public either with FTPE seeing its Public Performance Measure (PPM) rise from an initial mid-70s figure to an all-time high for the franchise last period of 93.2 per cent in terms of performance. This has partially been achieved through a more resilient timetable, the new investment into trains, and training, which have clearly elevated the franchise’s performance to a very different place from where it once was.
Keen to continue this trend is new managing director FTPE Nick Donovan, who was appointed to the role in November 2011. Since joining the rail industry as a British Rail sponsored engineering graduate in 1982, Nick has worked in project development, and in a bidding role for opportunities in the UK, Australia, and Taiwan for both Alstom and First Group respectively. Nick has been with FTPE since its very beginnings, and as such played an integral role in the franchise’s evolution, not least by heading the introduction of the new Class 185 fleet into service.
“We have achieved nearly 50 industry awards in our history, and have a ‘Recognised for Excellence’ five-star award under the EFQM assessment criteria,” states Nick proudly. “This forms a very core part of our business planning process and certainly some of our success has been driven by that. One measure of this is the growth in passenger journeys on our Manchester to Scotland services, which when we began running them had about half a million journeys per year and we now carry around 1.3 million passengers a year on this route.”
The increasingly high levels of performance that FTPE is now achieving have also been a primary factor in the Government’s decision last year to extend the franchise term until 2015. This will see the business not only continue to take responsibility for its daily operations, but also for the implementation of a number of vital upcoming developments designed to tackle some of the challenges still experienced by the network.
“Against the context that we are growing ahead of the sector average for customer numbers, we are now at a point where on some days of the week as many as one in seven services may experience being over capacity for some part of the journey. During this period we have also been part of the doubling in modal share for airport passenger transport. Whilst in 2004 one in 16 people accessed Manchester Airport by rail that is now one in eight, and in this current financial year we have seen a 13 per cent increase in that particular flow. We have responded to these immediate capacity challenges with the resources we currently have by moving around the timetable, and doubling capacity on our Manchester to Scotland services at the weekend,” highlights Nick.
Longer term, FTPE is looking to benefit from London Midland’s current procurement of a new Class 350 fleet with approximately 40 of the vehicles destined for FTPE’s own network. “Those particular trains will go into service in the North-West as part of the electrification of the route across from Manchester to the West Coast Mainline, and that will in turn enable us to cascade our existing fleet onto other routes to provide widespread capacity benefits with around a 20 per cent seating increase across the network. The new trains are aimed to come on stream in around two years’ time, which means whilst there are still some capacity challenges ahead we have a clear plan to address that longer term,” adds Nick.More seats
The broad concept of these new units will be the same as the existing Class 350 fleet in operation by London Midland, although it is hoped with the ability to travel at 110 miles per hour. FTPE is however working with London Midland throughout the procurement to see its own trains delivered with an upgraded first class area, which will be similar to its Class 185 trains, and an additional toilet. This recognises the longer distance journeys that customers will be taking on these trains.
The introduction of the new Class 350 fleet will slightly alter the Manchester to Scotland route that FTPE currently operates, resulting in quite a significant timetable change. With so many different elements required to pull together in preparing the ground for this, Nick explains how this is being implemented: “Everything at present is on plan to achieve those first electric trains operating between Manchester and Scotland towards the end of 2013 and early 2014. Alliancing is a very big agenda item for the industry at the moment, and as part of that we have a joint steering group set up between ourselves, Network Rail and Siemens to ensure that all the aspects of the project come together to deliver those trains in revenue service. This recognises Network Rail’s electrification works, the new train delivery, driver and conductor training, and some timetable changes we have to make over the next year or so to accommodate the service.”High aspirations
One of the other objectives that Nick brought with him was for FTPE to refresh its approach to customers in recognition of the fact that customer aspirations are as high as they have ever been. “Many things have been delivered with great success and overall customers are very satisfied but I think we realise that customer expectations are growing at the same time,” reveals Nick.
“Therefore one of the things I’m working on with the team is how we ensure that this satisfaction and our delivery remain at an industry leading position. Some of this I firmly believe comes down to how we communicate with customers – both during normal journeys and when these are disrupted. As such we’ve just launched a new trial Twitter application called TPE Assist where frontline staff can support customers with direct advice on a more personal level, and in parallel we are looking at improving our face-to-face engagement between staff and our customer base.”
On the whole, the North is subject to a number of exciting developments from a rail perspective including the Northern Hub proposals. Specifically within that, Network Rail is implementing a new orbital curve, which could potentially shift a number of FTPE’s current services to call at both Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria and therefore bring a change in service pattern to the North. Alongside that there is the potential for further electrification works across FTPE’s core route from Manchester to Leeds and York, and even beyond to the east and Middlesbrough.
With many of these plans falling outside of FTPE’s current franchise term though, the company is pressing ahead conscious of the wider debate around what the franchise might look like in the future within the wider North of England strategy. Whilst it is actively engaging in this work over the coming months and supporting stakeholders in their deliberations regarding rail delivery in the region, Nick is adamant that this does not detract from FTPE’s current commitments: “In many ways my focus is on continuing a very high level of delivery from our existing franchise, and this important electrification project which in itself is an enabler to developments beyond the end of term. Some of the work that we are doing at present with regards to this extra capacity is very much aligned to the wider agenda for the North in building up long-term network capacity and recognising the growth in rail across the region,” he concludes.
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