Ministers are preparing to grant troubled train operator Avanti a short-term extension to its contract to resume trains on the West Coast main line after two months of timetable chaos.
Incoming Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan was due to make a decision by mid-October on whether to keep Avanti after half of the multi-major city services between London and Scotland were cut due to “serious” staff shortages.
People familiar with talks between Avanti and the Department of Transportation said the government now intends to grant a transition period until April, rather than scrapping the franchise altogether or renewing it until 2031.
Avanti, operated by a joint venture between Britain’s First Group and Italian state-owned operator Trenitalia, sparked outrage from passengers, businesses, MPs and regional leaders when it suddenly announced its temporarily reduced timetable on August 8.
Services between London and Manchester were reduced from three hours to one almost overnight, with limited advance ticket sales, although the operator reintroduced some services last week and promised to return to a full timetable in December.
The move was prompted by drivers who no longer agreed to work on rest days, a move the government and company initially blamed on unofficial industrial action, but which unions said was due to a breakdown in relations between staff and management and was due to a chronic shortage of drivers.
Despite the timetable cuts, which Avanti says should improve reliability, passengers still face cancellations and delays – including for people bound for the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week.
Andy Burnham, Labor Mayor of Greater Manchester, said an average of 10 per cent of the line’s remaining services into the city had been additionally canceled in the last three weeks, while more than a quarter – 27 per cent – had been delayed.
Avanti’s contract was up for renewal on October 16, and a former transport minister recently said “all options” are being explored.
Such a renewal, which would sanction a 2019 contract to operate services through 2031, would normally be a formality. Ministers are in the process of pushing all rail operators into new contracts to accommodate revenue impacted by the pandemic.
A short-term extension would allow ministers to avoid the politically uncomfortable decision to reward struggling operators with a long-term contract and give companies until the spring to resolve any issues.
Burnham this week called for Avanti’s contract to be scrapped and the service potentially nationalized if there was no improvement by the end of October. However, there is little appetite within the government to fully nationalize more parts of the rail network. Other troubled concessions, including the main line on the north and east coasts, have already been placed under public scrutiny.
The DfT said it had met regularly with Avanti to discuss its performance, which over the summer was described as “terrible” by Transport Secretary Baroness de Vere, recording the lowest passenger satisfaction of any operator.
A department spokesman said: “The problems faced by Avanti are a prime example of why we need to modernize our railways so that passengers benefit from reliable timetables that do not rely a priori on the goodwill of drivers who voluntarily work overtime make.”
Avanti has been contacted for comment.
https://www.ft.com/content/9045ebbd-3b2a-4d34-ad5f-a4157b9cccc1 Avanti Receives Temporary Expansion of West Coast Rail Franchise