Avanti West Coast is handed contract extension by the government

Avanti West Coast is handed contract extension by the government – despite calls for crisis-hit operator to lose deal over ‘unacceptable’ delays and axed services

  • Train operator has struggled with reliability and punctuality over the past year
  • DfT has now extended FirstGroup-owned company’s contract until October 15

Rail operator Avanti West Coast was today handed a short-term contract extension by the Government despite passenger fury over ‘completely unacceptable’ delays.

The operator has left travellers irate over the past year due to poor reliability on the services it runs between London Euston, the Midlands, North West and Scotland.

The FirstGroup-owned company’s contract was due to expire at the end of this month, but the Department for Transport has now extended it until October 15.

Passengers and social media users were left irate by the extension, with one calling it a ‘disgrace’ and another claiming that Avanti had been ‘rewarded for failure again’.

Even today, Avanti trains between London and Glasgow were delayed by a points failure at Carstairs – and they will also be hit again by strikes on March 30 and April 1. 

But Transport Secretary Mark Harper justified the renewal by saying that Avanti’s improvement plan following its previous six-month renewal in October ‘is working’.

All eyes will now likely be on the operator for a major upcoming test on the weekend of April 22 and 23, when fans of Manchester City and Manchester United will both be travelling to and from London for the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley Stadium.

Avanti West Coast has faced passenger fury over ‘completely unacceptable’ delays (file image)

Avanti West Coast operates trains between London, the Midlands, North West and Scotland 

Avanti runs trains on the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow, with branches to Birmingham, North Wales, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh.

READ MORE: Light at end of the tunnel as rail union votes on deal 

Members of the RMT are today expected to vote in favour of the latest Network Rail pay offer – paving the way for months of crippling strikes to finally end.

The rail union launched a ballot on March 9 which will close at midday, with the results expected to be announced shortly after.

Last night senior rail sources were quietly confident a majority of workers have backed the 9 per cent offer.

RMT boss Mick Lynch at Euston on Saturday

It is a joint venture between FirstGroup (70 per cent) and Italian state operator Trenitalia (30 per cent).

Avanti slashed its timetable in August 2022 in a bid to improve reliability.

This came after passengers suffered weeks of short-notice cancellations, partly due to a sharp decline in the number of drivers voluntarily working on rest days for extra pay.

A new timetable introduced in December 2022 with a ‘significantly reduced reliance on overtime working’ has seen the number of weekday services increase from 180 to 264, the DfT said.

The proportion of services cancelled has fallen from nearly 25 per cent in August 2022 to 4.2 per cent in early March, and 90 per cent of trains are arriving within 15 minutes of the schedule, the department added.

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

Mr Mellors previously held senior roles at Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and most recently as managing director of the group’s non-franchised rail businesses.

He takes over from First Rail managing director Steve Montgomery, who has been acting managing director of Avanti West Coast since September 2022 following the resignation of Phil Whittingham.

FirstGroup chief executive Graham Sutherland said today: ‘We are working closely with 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 40 per cent 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.’

Transport Secretary Mark Harper (pictured in Blyth on March 6) said an improvement plan produced by Avanti West Coast ‘is working’

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said an improvement plan produced by Avanti West Coast after the DfT previously handed the operator a six-month contract renewal in October 2022 ‘is working’.

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

The contract for TransPennine Express – another FirstGroup-owned operator with performance problems – expires on May 28.

This will be ‘considered separately with a further announcement in due course’, according to the DfT.

Source: Read Full Article