Avanti West Coast’s contract extended but ‘more improvements needed’


Ministers have given another contract extension to Avanti West Coast, saying the poorly performing rail operator had made improvements to services that were scaled back drastically in recent months, prompting chaos and a customer backlash.

Mark Harper, the transport secretary, said that while he understood the frustrations of passengers who had faced a big reduction in intercity services and a ban on most advance ticket sales, he had extended the contract for a further six months to the end of October.

Further improvements would need to be made by the operator if it was to continue to hold the contract, he said.

Services on the busy London to Manchester route were cut from one every 20 minutes to one an hour. Tickets were not made available to purchase until a few days in advance, and then often sold out, making travel planning hugely difficult.

At the time, Avanti blamed “unofficial strike action” by the train drivers’ union Aslef. Aslef said this was a lie, and that the operator had been employing too few drivers and relied on routine overtime to run services.

In October, the Department for Transport (DfT) placed the operator on a six-month contract, saying it would lose the route if it did not “drastically improve services”.

A DfT statement on Monday said that since then, the introduction of a recovery timetable had reduced reliance on overtime and trains had increased from 180 trains a day to 264 on weekdays.

A rash of cancellations, which peaked at 25% in August, had fallen to 4.2%, the statement added, with punctuality improved and more than 100 extra drivers recruited. More needed to be done, however, the statement added.

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.”