Hugh Peters: A festive farce on TransPennine Express

THE other day, a humble railway announcer created new transport policy for the NorthernPowerhouse on the hoof, as the three-car rush-hour service from Manchester to Yorkshire destinations was getting rather crowded. It was collecting many passengers following the cancellation of two previous trains.

The announcer suggested people not in a hurry might get off and enjoy the Huddersfield station experience in order to allow passengers who were in more of a rush to get on in their stead. Really he did, readers.

A ripple of gratitude spread through my carriage like a Mexican wave, as people gladly accepted the invitation to be even more late for work. “This has finally given me the push I needed to start writing my novel,” declared one. “I will do my yoga in the waiting room,” chirped someone else. “I hate my job anyway,” said another. “If I get sacked for my persistent lateness, I will personally thank TP Express,” added another passenger.

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The announcer also reminded passengers that first class seats were – despite current conditions – still exclusively for those with first class tickets, as it was essential to maintain a better class of delay for those who had paid more.

TransPennine Express campaigners at Slaithwaite.

I admire this improvisational approach in the face of operational difficulties, signalling problems, driver shortages, mysterious incidents and network congestion. Congestion develops, as I understand it, when there are a lot of trains with a lot of people on them who have all paid a lot of money for something that has been described as a service.

In the face of this considerable income stream, I applaud the attempt to encourage a ‘flexible travel mindset’ in the deeply conservative travelling public. None of this rigid old-fashioned stuff about getting on a particular timetabled train running to schedule. Except, of course, if you have an advance ticket for a particular service and unexpectedly end up on a different one, in which case the train companies will stick with the standard policy of expecting you to pay for two journeys.

Let us picture the scene, travellers, at the TransPennineExpress planning meetings, with managers animatedly exhorting colleagues to be creative:

“Colleagues, in the age of ‘agile train travel’, we expect passengers to hop on and off trains at very short notice as the rail company devises more modern operational operations and functional modalities for um… our functions. We are actively considering inviting customers to, for example, take annual leave instead of going to work at busy times.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership says TransPennine Express is a failing franchise - do you agree?

“It will work like this: commuters will lodge with us their mobile phone numbers and as cancellations and delays unfold, they may receive a text while on the way to the station encouraging them to take the day off. The working title for the policy is ‘a not-stuck-under-the-warm-duvet day’.

“Another option is that customers who arrange with their employers to work night shifts so as to avoid travelling at peak times will be offered incentives, for example a complimentary cheese sandwich on a station of their choice. We feel with the right branding this scheme could really take off. The marketing team are on it and – I’m so excited about this – it’s going to be called ‘Midnight train to Batley’.

“In order to enhance the customer experience, railway stations themselves will have to adapt, and our staff will be upskilled in ways of entertaining passengers who are just dropping into stations to pass a little agile time. So alongside the familiar cheery Tannoy announcements about delays and cancellations, there will be quick quizzes with prizes, along the lines of ‘Guess how late home you will be tonight’, an accumulator bet gambling option for multiple train cancellations and story-telling sessions run by long serving railway staff. Obviously some of our colleagues have already got the red coats so, colleagues, it’s a win-win for TransPennine. Also, following the successful pilot we have run with our announcers recently, there will be prizes for customers who think up imaginative reasons for train delays. Previous winners include rhubarb leaves on the line in Yorkshire, passengers unexpectedly giving birth on trains and problems with rolling stock caused by climate change.

“To conclude, colleagues, we want to get away from the tired old format that railway stations are places you just pass through when you want to travel somewhere else. So we will be adapting the traditional warm send-offs that our announcers have hitherto made such as ‘Have a pleasant onward journey’ to something catchy along the lines of ‘Forget that boring old daily commute, TransPennine Express’s new business model brings you the ultimate TravelTainment Experience. When you arrive at the station, the adventure is just beginning...”

Hugh Peters is a commuter who tries to use TransPennine Express services.