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Avanti West Coast contract extended by 6 months after ‘improvements’

Avanti West Coast
Avanti West Coast

The operator of train services on the West Coast Main Line has been given a new six-month contract – and could remain in place until 2032.

The Department for Transport announced on Monday that Avanti West Coast, which was given a six months’ stay of execution and ordered to “drastically” improve services last October, was being retained on the UK’s flagship long-distance route.

The DfT said this followed “significant” improvements, with 40 per cent more services and cancellations having fallen to 4.2 per cent, less than the national average.

But Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said the decision “showed our broken railways are here to stay”.

She tweeted: “Avanti has literally broken records over the last six months for delays and cancellations, and the Conservatives’ answer is to reward failure with millions more in taxpayer cash.”

Last summer, when the Government was forced to intervene, 12.2 per cent of Avanti trains were being cancelled, due in part to train drivers refusing to work rest days. Cancellations peaked in August with almost one in four trains being axed.

Ministers had come under pressure to strip Avanti of its contract – which links London with Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow – after it cut services to cope with the shortage of drivers.

But the firm, which is owned by FirstGroup, has been given a new contract until October 15 – when a new contract could be offered that lasts until October 2032.

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

Avanti adopted a “recovery” timetable in December, which reduced its reliance on drivers working overtime, while also recruiting and training more than 100 more drivers.

Services have since increased from 180 trains per day to 264 on weekdays – the highest level in over two years.

Drivers who belonged to the union Aslef had suddenly stopped volunteering to work overtime – leading to fierce criticism of Avanti for being so reliant on staff to work on rest days to keep trains running.

The DfT said 90 per cent of trains now arrived within 15 minutes of the planned time. But it said “further work needs to be done to restore reliability and punctuality to the standards that passengers rightly expect”.

This includes more reliable weekend services and providing passengers with more information about planned and unplanned disruption.

At present, passengers travelling on the line to and from Scotland face delays of at least an hour due to three months of Network Rail engineering works at Carstairs, south of Glasgow.

Avanti carries about 25 million passengers a year – about three million more than London North East Railways, which runs services on the East Coast Main Line.

But the most recent quarterly figures from the Office of Rail and Road, for the three months to December, show Avanti was only running 61 per cent of services compared with pre-pandemic levels, about 14,800 trains between October and December.

The contract, which includes “shadow” services on the now-delayed HS2 high-speed line, had been due to expire on March 31.

FirstGroup announced on Monday that Andy Mellors has been appointed managing director of Avanti West Coast with immediate effect.

He takes over from Steve Montgomery, First Rail Managing Director who has been acting Avanti managing director since September 2022.

Mr Montgomery has also been leading efforts by the Rail Delivery Group to end the national rail strike. Both Aslef and the RMT remain in dispute in the battle for better pay and to protect working conditions.

Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup chief executive, said:  "Performance at Avanti is steadily improving and since the introduction of the new timetable in mid-December, the number of services operated has increased by more than 40 per cent compared to last summer, with more seats and better frequencies.

“The 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.”

The DfT said the contract for Transpennine Express services, which have been heavily criticised due to the number of cancellations, will be considered separately. It is due to expire on May 28, with a further announcement in due course.