TOCs Since 2020: Suspension and Abolition

Passenger Rail Franchising Companies in Great Britain (TOCs)

TOCs Since 2020: Suspension and Abolition

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on 23 March 2020 the UK government took emergency measures which suspended all passenger rail franchise agreements for six months.Passenger numbers had already dropped by 70% by that date, leading to a significant drop in the income of the operating companies, which responded by cancelling and reconfiguring services. The government agreed with the companies that passengers holding advance tickets would be able to get a full refund.

Under the Emergency Measure Agreements (EMA), which were backdated to 1 March, the normal financial mechanisms of the franchise agreements were suspended so that operating companies would not get into financial difficulty. All revenue would be paid to the government, who would pay the operators' costs plus a management fee of up to 2% of their pre-pandemic costs.

In September, the government extended the EMAs by 18 months and announced plans to end the system of rail franchising, instead moving to a concession-based model, as already operated by Merseyrail, TfL Rail and London Overground. This would see all aspects of the service set by a new public body, with each operation run by a private company who would receive a fee under a management contract. In May 2021, the public body was named as Great British Railways.

On 20 September 2020, the first set of EMAs expired. They were replaced in most cases by Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs) with durations of between six and 18 months, under these the Department for Transport (DfT) continued to receive the revenue and pay most of the train operating companies costs. There are some exceptions to the standard pattern:

  • Two franchises had already been taken into public ownership under the operator of last resort procedure: East Coast (since 2018) and Northern (since 1 March 2020).
  • Three franchises expired during 2020. Great Western and South Eastern signed new franchise agreements which run alongside their emergency agreements, and Arriva's CrossCountry franchise was extended to October 2023 under a direct award agreement. Commercial arrangements for all three are consistent with the ERMAs.

In a further move away from franchising, in December DfT agreed a directly awarded National Rail Contract with South Western Railway to run for at least two years following the end of its emergency agreement in April 2021, similarly with Avanti West Coast for at least four years from April 2022,and GWR for three years from June 2022.

  • One franchise was taken into public ownership under the operator of last resort procedure in 2021: Transport for Wales Rail by the Welsh Government.
  • One franchise was taken into public ownership under the same procedure later in 2021: Southeastern, owned by Govia was terminated on 16 October 2021 and transferred to Southeastern owned by Department for Transport.
  • One franchise was taken into public ownership under the same procedure in 2022: after the Abellio ScotRail franchise finished at the end of March 2022, services were transferred to ScotRail, owned by the Scottish Government on 1 April 2022.
  • On 28 May 2023, FirstGroup's TransPennine Express' contract was not renewed after customer complaints of poor service and a high number of train cancellations. Operator of last resort TransPennine Express took over.


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