Strip Avanti of rail franchise if cut services not restored, Labour says

Strip Avanti of rail franchise if cut services not restored, Labour says
Private operator has dramatically cut intercity services on UK’s flagship railway

The government should remove the west coast rail franchise from Avanti trains if cut services are not restored, Labour has said.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh warned that the operator had “no business” holding the contract to run services if they could not meet its conditions.

It comes after the operator dramatically cut services on the UK’s flagship intercity rail route because it has not not hired enough staff to cover shifts.

The timetable between London and Manchester had been abruptly cut from three trains an hour to just one train, “until further notice”, among other reductions in intercity services.

The operator relies on staff to volunteer to work overtime on weekends, to cover gaps in its staffing – but fewer have been doing so in recent weeks, leading to shortages.

Avanti claims that staff are covertly taking undeclared industrial action by not volunteering to work on rest-days, but has not produced evidence to support this.

Unions say the claim is untrue, that the company simply does not employ enough drivers, and that it should “stop lying and start recruiting”.

Speaking on Tuesday shadow transport Secretary Ms Haigh said that the government should stop paying Avanti fees under its management contract for service it was not running – and ultimately strip it over the contract if the situation does not improve.

“This fiasco is causing real damage to the regional economy, passengers and the public,” she said.

“This hapless government cannot continue to wash their hands of responsibility, blame anyone but themselves, and reward failure without consequences.

“It’s time ministers put passengers first. They should demand a plan from the operator to urgently restore these services, claw-back taxpayers’ money being handed over for services that aren’t running, and if the private operator cannot fulfil their contract, they have no business holding it.”

The problems come at a crucial time for the railways, with passenger numbers recovering from a huge slowdown in Covid. Prior to the timetable reduction national rail services were running at an average of 90 per cent of pre-pandemic loadings.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has previously branded Avanti a “failing service”, while London mayor Sadiq Khan said: “Avanti have behaved appallingly, reducing services without consultation whilst blaming the workers who keep the service running.”

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Aslef rail union, said: “The truth is that the company does not employ enough drivers to deliver the services it promises passengers it will run. The company, and the minister [Grant Shapps], should stop lying and start recruiting.”

Aslef members at Avanti are set to strike on 13 August as part of a long-running dispute over pay and conditions, but the union says no other action is being taken other than that declared.

Aslef has long supported moving away from overtime rest day working and towards having Sundays as a regular rostered day.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “People deserve certainty and confidence that their train will run on time, and while this move was unavoidable, it should minimise the fallout for passengers.

“This is a prime example of why we need to modernise our railways, so that passengers benefit from reliable timetables which don’t rely on the goodwill of drivers volunteering to work overtime in the first place.”