The Mayor of Greater Manchester has praised the Government for giving Avanti West Coast a short-term contract renewal, but warned he is “hugely concerned” about its “failing service” lasting a further six months.
Andy Burnham, who wrote to Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan calling for the company’s contract to be stripped unless services improve, said while he is pleased with the Government’s plan, he is calling for a mid-way review in December.
It comes after the Department for Transport (DfT) announced the rail company, which provides services from England to Scotland, has been placed on a short-term contract renewal after it provided an “unacceptable” service to customers.
Avanti West Coast has been given until April 1 next year to improve its services following a reduction of its trains in the summer.
The Labour mayor said: “Putting Avanti West Coast on notice marks a significant shift in tone under the new secretary of state.
“At last, there is a clear recognition of the crisis engulfing the country’s most important railway line and the management failure that has led to that.
“However, the lack of an acceptable rescue plan from the company – and clear conditions from the Government – means very few people in Greater Manchester will support this extension.”
Mr Burnham added: “The damage that Avanti’s failing service is inflicting on our economy, and the huge disruption to passengers, is completely unacceptable.
“The company has shown itself to be unable to stabilise their service and fix problems with ticketing and the on-board experience for passengers.
“The thought of another six months of what we’re currently experiencing is a huge concern.
“From here, Greater Manchester is calling for a new approach from the Government.
“First, we want day-to-day monitoring and week-to-week public reporting on performance to be introduced.
“Second, we ask the Government to set a review point in mid-December in consultation with mayors and leaders from London, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
“If Avanti are still not delivering the full timetable and an acceptable service at that point, that will allow time for arrangements to be made for a new operator to be in place from April 2023.”
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh meanwhile described the extension of the contract as a “slap in the face for passengers”.
She said: “This is a reward for abject failure and a slap in the face for passengers.
“This failing operator has caused travel misery, and the Government’s answer is to hand over millions more in taxpayers’ cash and consign passengers to another six months of chaos.
“If the Government had any interest in doing their job, they would strip this failing operator of the contract and finally put passengers first.”
The operator reduced its timetable from seven trains per hour to a minimum of four per hour on August 14.
Trains were removed from the timetable in August to cut short-notice cancellations after a sharp decline in the number of drivers voluntarily working on rest days for extra pay.
The DfT said nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service this year between April and December, meaning more services have started to be added as new drivers become available to work.
It said the company is planning to increase from around 180 trains per day to 264 per day on weekdays, as more drivers become available and recruitment continues, and is extending booking options for passengers.
Last month, Avanti West Coast published a plan to reinstate some services on certain days from September 27.
Timetables on other days were due to be boosted “as soon as possible” ahead of another increase on December 11.
Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “Services on Avanti have been unacceptable and while the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers.
“We have agreed a six-month extension to Avanti to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect.”
FirstGroup, which co-owns Avanti West Coast in a joint venture with Italy’s Trenitalia, said it is “committed” to providing services that meet people’s needs.
Chief executive officer Graham Sutherland said: “We are committed to working closely with Government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway that serves the needs of our customers and communities.
“Today’s agreement allows our team at Avanti West Coast to sustain their focus on delivering their robust plan to restore services to the levels that passengers rightly expect.”