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Train operator Avanti given six-month extension to rail contract

A general view of the Avanti West Coast train at Stoke-on-Trent Train Station - Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
A general view of the Avanti West Coast train at Stoke-on-Trent Train Station - Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Avanti West Coast, the under-fire train operator, has been granted another six month contract extension by ministers to prove it can improve services.

The company, which runs west coast main line services from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, will have its contract extended to Oct 15, beyond the initial deadline

Avanti has been subject to a fierce backlash over poor service levels with demands for the Government to nationalise the train line.

Tickets on the intercity service regularly cost hundreds of pounds, but customers have suffered from cancellations, disruption and limited availability of tickets since last summer.

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There have been significant improvements in service levels in recent months, however. Some 40pc more trains have operated and cancellations have fallen to 4.2pc of services.

Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, claimed the improvement was down to Government intervention.

He 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 the next six months further improvements will need to be made by Avanti West Coast.”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper - Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Transport Secretary Mark Harper - Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Avanti is a joint venture between FTSE 250 company FirstGroup and Trenitalia, Italy’s state-owned operator of high-speed services.

The operator replaced Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains in 2019, which had run services on the west coast for more than a decade.

Avanti’s problems are multifaceted but commentators say are centred on the operator’s failure to hire enough new drivers during the pandemic.

This has left it short of drivers and dependent on the heavily unionised workforce to work on days off.

Phil Whittingham was forced to step down as Avanti managing director last September after accusing unions of engaging in illegal strike action.

The operator received an ultimatum by then-Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan in October to drastically improve service levels within six months or lose its contract.

It led to calls from Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham among others for the Government to strip Avanti of the contract and bring the UK's railways into public ownership.

FirstGroup today said it had appointed Andy Mellors, the former head of South Western Railway and Great Western Railway to take over in charge of Avanti with immediate effect.

Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup chief executive said: “We are working closely with the Government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway for our customers and communities.

“Performance at Avanti is steadily improving and since the introduction of the new timetable in mid-December, the number of services has increased by more than 40pc compared to last summer, with more seats and better frequencies.

“Today’s agreement allows our team to continue their focus on delivering their robust plans to continue enhancing services for our customers, including further progress on our train upgrade and refurbishment programme.”

Louise Haigh, Labour's shadow transport secretary, said that Avanti continues to have the highest proportion of trains that are more than 15 minutes late.

She added: “If this is what success looks like under the Conservatives, it shows our broken railways are here to stay.”

Ministers sparked criticism last November after it emerged that it was entitled to a seven-figure “performance fee” from taxpayers despite running just one in three services over the summer.

FirstGroup also runs Transpennine Express, another operator that has been criticised for its poor performance. Local politicians are also calling for it to be nationalised.