Rail contract

FirstGroup warned on West Coast route extension

Avanti has suffered service disruptions

Avanti West Coast, operated by First Group and Italian firm Trenitalia, has been given a short-term extension for the Glasgow-London rail route but has been warned it needs to “drastically improve services”.

The decision will enable it to continue running services on the route only until the end of March when the contract will be reviewed by the Department for Transport.

The West Coast Partnership is currently operating under an Emergency Recovery Measures Agreement which was put in place by the DfT in September 2020 to provide continuity for rail passengers and the industry during the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said services on Avanti have been “unacceptable”.

“While the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers,” she said.

“We have agreed a six-month extension to Avanti to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect.”

FirstGroup, which owns Avanti West Coast in a joint venture with Italy’s Trenitalia, said it was “committed” to providing services that meet the needs of customers and communities.

“Today’s agreement allows our team at Avanti West Coast to sustain their focus on delivering their robust plan to restore services to the levels that passengers rightly expect,” said Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup’s chief executive.

The operator reduced its timetable from seven trains per hour to a minimum of four per hour on 14 August and suspended ticket sales, blaming “severe staff shortages”.

Avanti has blamed the shortages on train drivers suddenly stopping volunteering for overtime. The train drivers’ union, Aslef, has strongly denied any accusations that there has been unofficial strike action.

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The timetable cuts sparked widespread criticism and frustration.

Rail union TSSA criticised the contract extension as “rewarding failure” and a “missed opportunity” to bring the service into public ownership.

TSSA represents staff working in Avanti ticket offices, station and other roles, with many reporting high stress levels from working in what it claims is an under-staffed workplace and facing customer anger at service cancellations and lack of service and ticket availability.

General Secretary, Manuel Cortes, said: “This contract extension exposes the ideological insanity of putting privatisation before services and passengers. Avanti have failed yet are rewarded for that failure with an extension to their contract.

“These vital rail services must be brought into public ownership where they can be run effectively and in the interests of passengers, staff and the taxpayer. We’ve seen private operators fail time and again, it’s time to draw a line under the failed experiment of fragmentation and privatisation of our railways.”

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