Avanti to be granted stop-gap extension to west coast rail franchise

Ministers are preparing to grant troubled train operator Avanti a short-term renewal of its contract to continue running trains on the west coast mainline after two months of timetable chaos.

New transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan was due to make a decision on keeping on Avanti by the middle of October, following a period in which half of its services connecting London and Scotland, via several big cities, had been cut owing to “severe” staff shortages.

People familiar with talks between Avanti and the Department for Transport said the government was now intending to grant a stop-gap extension until April, rather than remove the franchise altogether or renew it until 2031.

Avanti, run by a joint venture of the UK’s First Group and Italian state-owned operator Trenitalia, sparked outrage among passengers, businesses, MPs and regional leaders when it suddenly announced its temporary curtailed timetable on August 8.

Services between London and Manchester were cut from three to one an hour almost overnight, with limits put on advance ticket purchases, although last week the operator reinstated some services and promised to return to a full timetable in December.

The move was prompted by drivers no longer agreeing to work on rest days, a move the government and company initially blamed on unofficial industrial action but which unions said was owing to a breakdown in relations between staff and management and a chronic driver shortage.

Despite the timetable reductions, which Avanti said were meant to improve reliability, passengers have still faced cancellations and delays — including for people heading for this week’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said an average of 10 per cent of the line’s remaining services into the city had additionally been cancelled over 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 previous transport minister recently said “all options” were under consideration.

Such a renewal, which would rubber-stamp a 2019 deal to run services until 2031, would ordinarily be a formality. Ministers are in the process of moving all rail operators on to new contracts to take into account the revenue hit from the pandemic.

A short-term extension would allow ministers to avoid the politically uncomfortable decision of being seen to reward troubled operators with a long-term contract and give the companies until the spring to sort out problems.

Burnham this week called for the contract to be stripped from Avanti and the service potentially nationalised if there was no improvement by the end of October. There is little appetite within the government to fully nationalise more of the rail network, however. Other troubled franchises, including Northern and the East Coast mainline, have already been taken into public control.

The DfT said it had been meeting regularly with Avanti to discuss its performance, which over the summer was called “terrible” by transport minister Baroness de Vere, with it recording the lowest passenger transport satisfaction of any operator.

A department spokesman said: “The problems facing Avanti are a prime example of why we need to modernise our railways, so passengers benefit from reliable timetables that don’t rely on the goodwill of drivers volunteering to work overtime in the first place.”

Avanti has been approached for comment.

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