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Labour threatens to strip Avanti rail contract as Branson plans rival

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh told Sky News Avanti had provided passengers with "woeful service" on the West Coast Main Line.
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh told Sky News Avanti had provided passengers with "woeful service" on the West Coast Main Line.

Labour said on Wednesday it would urgently consider terminating beleaguered Avanti West Coast’s contract if it wins the general election.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said the company had provided passengers with “woeful service” on the West Coast Main Line, which connects London all the way to Edinburgh.

According to figures from the Office of Rail and Road, Avanti had the third worst reliability of every train company in Britain over the 12 months to the end of March.

The performance has been such that Greater Manchester’s Labour Mayor Andy Burnham said in March he’d “completely run out of patience”.

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The Conservative government gave Avanti, which is owned by the transport giant Firstgroup and Trenitalia, a new long-term contract last year.

The agreement was originally agreed at nine years but has a clause which means it can be terminated at three months’ notice after October 2026.

The comments come amid speculation Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains could return to the West Coast Main Line under an open-access model. Open access operators take full commercial risk and are not subject to government franchising fees. It is a model designed to boost competition against mainstay train companies like Avanti.

Speaking to Sky News, the shadow transport secretary also faced questions on Labour’s plans to nationalise Britain’s railways. “Our commitment is to bring in those contracts as they expire or when they are breached,” she said.

“I anticipate I will be seeking advice early on whether Avanti has been in breach of its contract given the woeful service that it’s been providing to passengers down the West Coast Main Line.”

She added: “No ifs, no buts, October 2026 will be the last date Avanti will have notice of that contract [ending] but I will ask for early advice about whether they have already breached their contract and whether it can be brought in any earlier.”

An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said: “Recently we have introduced our new Evero fleet on the West Coast Main Line which has boosted capacity on the network.

“This combined with our refurbishment of our Pendolino trains, the introduction of Standard Premium and our Superfare ticket has significantly improved customer experience on our services.”