Ministers ‘reward Avanti West Coast’s failure’ by extending contract
Ministers have given another contract extension to Avanti West Coast, saying the poorly performing rail operator had made improvements to services, despite persistent problems.
Avanti’s intercity trains regularly failed to run to schedule even after the timetable was drastically scaled back last August, and the rate of cancellations leapt again in December when more services were added, but has improved in recent weeks.
Mark Harper, the transport secretary, said while he understood the frustrations of passengers who had faced a big reduction in intercity services and a ban on most advance ticket sales, he had extended the contract for a further six months to the end of October.
Further improvements would need to be made by the operator if it was to continue to hold the contract, he said.
Labour said Avanti had “broken records” over the previous six months for delays and cancellations, and that the decision was inexplicable, while unions said it was a reward for failure.
The decision will fuel fears in the north that Avanti’s sister company TransPennine Express, another First Group-owned operation whose service levels have been plummeting, will soon receive a similar contract extension from ministers.
Avanti, which runs trains between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, prompted outrage from passengers, business groups and devolved mayors when in August it imposed an emergency timetable.
Services on the busy London to Manchester route were cut to one an hour. Tickets were not made available to purchase until a few days in advance.
Related: ‘Masterclass in poor service’: rail passenger hits out at Avanti over £589 ticket
In October, the Department for Transport (DfT) placed the operator on a six-month contract, saying it would lose the route if it did not “drastically improve services”.
A DfT statement on Monday said that since then, the introduction of a recovery timetable had reduced reliance on overtime and trains had increased from 180 trains a day to 264 on weekdays.
A rash of cancellations, which peaked at 25% in August, had fallen to 4.2%, the statement added, with punctuality improved and more than 100 extra drivers recruited. More needed to be done, however, the statement added.
Harper said: “The routes Avanti West Coast run are absolutely vital, and I fully understand the frustrations passengers felt at the completely unacceptable services seen last autumn. Following our intervention, rail minister Huw Merriman and I have worked closely with local leaders to put a robust plan in place, which I’m glad to see is working.
“However, there is still more work to be done to bring services up to the standards we expect, which is why over this next six months further improvements will need to be made.”
Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, said: “Avanti has literally broken records over the last six months for delays and cancellations, and the Conservatives’ answer is to reward failure with millions more in taxpayer cash. If this is what success looks like to ministers, it shows that under the Conservatives our broken railways are here to stay.”
Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Aslef union, said it was “extraordinary that the government is, yet again, rewarding failure. Avanti has continued to cancel services and, every day, continued to let passengers down.”
First Group’s contract to run TransPennine Express expires on 28 May. The DfT said its situation would be considered separately. Last week, the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, issued data showing almost a quarter of TransPennine’s trains were cancelled in February.