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'Rewarding failure': New transport secretary urged not to renew train operator contract amid travel chaos

Labour has joined unions in calling for Avanti West Coat to be stripped of its contract to run trains between the UK’s biggest cities over its ongoing reduced timetable

Avanti West Coast services between Manchester and London have been cut by a third, leaving carriages crowded with passengers. Image: Ethan Wilkinson / Unsplash

New transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan has been urged not to “reward failure” by renewing the contract of train operator Avanti West Coast while it is running a skeleton service causing chaos for thousands of people. 

Passengers and unions have been left outraged after reports Avanti is set to have its contract renewed despite the company admitting it is unable to run its timetabled services and is receiving more complaints than any other operator. 

Britain’s most profitable train routes connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow have suffered weeks of reduced services and last-minute timetable releases, with no end in sight to the chaos.

Train tickets are currently unavailable to buy from London to Liverpool for any weekends in the next two months, while services connecting Manchester and London have been cut from three an hour to just one. 

Avanti has blamed the service disruptions on “unofficial strike action” by drivers, a claim the train drivers union Aslef has rubbished.

Rail union the TSSA has labelled the reported contract renewal “a monumental insult to workers, passengers and taxpayers alike”. The union has accused Avanti of “deliberate understaffing” by refusing to recruit new staff to fill vacancies and instead relying on staff to work overtime to run core services.

Shadow transport secretary Louis Haigh implored the government to ask the new transport secretary to “strip Avanti of its contract when it comes up for renewal next month”. 

Avanti has cut 220,000 seats per week from its services, she said, adding: “The damage this shambles is doing to the regional economy and public purse is enormous, and yet incredibly it was signed off by the government”.

But transport minister Trudy Harrison said a “decision has yet to be taken” by new transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan on the contract, which is due to expire on October 16.

Recently sacked transport secretary Grant Shapps was accused of being “clueless” about the chaos caused by the disruption. When quizzed about it, he claimed there were four trains running between London and Manchester each hour.

Avanti company director Phil Whittingham will step down on September 15, the same day railway workers in unions Aslef, RMT and TSSA will go on strike. 

“If the government award Avanti a renewed contract they are both rewarding failure and signalling to operators up and down Britain that they are allowed to run services as poorly and greedily as they like without consequence”, said TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes.

“If the government had any business sense, instead of lumping the public with a failing operator for 10 more years, they would bring the line into public ownership and let the country feel the benefit from absorbed profits and better services.”

Passengers have reported packed carriages, multiple passengers booked onto the same seat, and extremely delayed services leaving people stranded, including a train London into Oxenholme, in the Lake District, arriving 100 minutes late on week night.

One passenger travelling between London and the Midlands over the bank holiday said the disruption left them no option but to take “a less convenient, slower route with a different operator” and they had to stand up for three hours because the train was so packed with people doing the same.

They added: “A reduced timetable coupled with not being able to book tickets until a few days before you travel may sound like logistics but it’s causing complete chaos. People who have no alternative routes are having to travel on packed trains at inconvenient times and pay through the nose for full-price tickets because there’s no advanced tickets to buy.

“You’d like to think any contract renewal would stipulate that Avanti needs to actually run the service it’s paid to, but who knows at the moment.”

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called for Avanti to be stripped of its contract unless the company restores full services across Greater Manchester.

“Avanti West Coast has failed to deliver on their commitment to explain how they will restore services between Manchester and London and failed to bring the stability to the timetable which they promised. Every day that this continues is a day of damage to the Greater Manchester economy and it cannot be allowed to continue.

“Weeks ago, the company tried to blame their workers for the problems. However, their inability to produce a rescue plan by the deadline we set has flushed out the truth – it is managers, not the workers, who are responsible for the chaos. 

Avanti West Coast told the Big Issue they are in regular discussions with the Department for Transport but have no further comments to make. 

The Department for Transport could not be contacted for comment.

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