Avanti West Coast has been under fire for their ‘poor performance’, regularly cancelling services, passengers being unable to buy tickets in advance, and was criticised last August for slashing services between Manchester and the capital.
However, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said that ‘some improvement’ had been made, prompting the Government to extend the beleaguered operator’s contract.
Transport Secretary Mark 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 these next six months further improvements will need to be made by Avanti West Coast.”
Avanti West Coast operates services between London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow, and has faced widespread criticism from passengers, business groups, and devolved mayors in August when it introduced an emergency timetable that drastically reduced services.
The London to Manchester route, which previously operated every 20 minutes, was cut to just one service per hour. Tickets were not available to purchase until a few days before travel, often selling out quickly, which made planning travel arrangements extremely challenging.
Avanti claimed that the reduced timetable was due to “unofficial strike action” by the train drivers’ union Aslef. However, Aslef disputed this, stating that the company had insufficient drivers and relied too heavily on routine overtime to maintain services.
This move sparked outrage from various stakeholders who criticised Avanti for its lack of preparedness and failure to provide adequate notice to passengers.
The contract was originally due to expire at the end of March but has been extended until October 15.
The government stated that the decision was made after Avanti’s performance on vital West Coast Main Line routes, particularly between Manchester, Birmingham, and London, had steadily improved.
The six-month contract was first put in place after Avanti experienced major operational issues, caused in part by a driver shortage and a ban on rest days and overtime work.
This led to passengers experiencing weeks of short-notice cancellations and Avanti ultimately slashing its timetable in August.
In December 2022, a new timetable was introduced with a “significantly reduced reliance on overtime working” which has seen the number of weekday services increases from 180 to 264, according to the DfT.
The government claims that Avanti West Coast has seen improvements across its services, with weekday services rising to the highest level in over two years, and cancellations reduced from nearly 25 per cent of the service in August 2022 to 4.2 per cent in early March 2023.
However, the DfT noted that further work is needed to ‘restore reliability and punctuality’, which will include ‘delivering more reliable weekend services, continued reductions in cancellations, and improvements in passenger information during planned and unplanned disruption’.
The Transpennine Express contract is set to expire on 28 May and will be considered separately with a further announcement to be made in due course.