Shropshire Star

Must do better: Off the rails Avanti West Coast is being kept on report

It is akin to staying on report at school.

Avanti has been handed a short-term contract for the West Coast Mainline franchise

Avanti West Coast has been allowed to continue running trains through the West Midlands.

But its report card has big capital letters marked in red: “Must do better”.

The train operator, owned by FirstGroup, has been handed a short-term contract extension by the Department for Transport (DfT).

The operator has struggled with reliability and punctuality during parts of the past year.

Passengers have been exasperated by strikes, cancelled trains and a reduced timetable because of driver shortages and a difficulty in buying advance tickets.

And, when a train turns up, they can be overcrowded and late.

Data from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) revealed Avanti West Coast was the worst offender for delays between October and December last year.

It showed only 34 per cent of its services ran on time, with the situation 11.3 per cent worse than the same period in 2021.

The ORR showed Avanti West Coast had the highest number of cancellations at 10.5 per cent, followed by CrossCountry at 10.3 per cent. Meanwhile West Midlands Trains had 5.1 per cent, improved from the year before, and Transport for West Midlands which also improved.

The Avanti contract is important as it covers one of the busiest routes in the country, on the West Coast Main Line between London Euston and Glasgow Central. It serves stations in the West Midlands including Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Stafford as well as branches to North Wales, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. It is also crucial to the economy of the West Midlands that trains run on time, particularly with its link between our region and the capital.

First Group’s contract was due to expire at the end of March but has been extended until October 15, on the proviso that improvements that have been made continue.

Its chief executive Graham Sutherland said: “We are working closely with Government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway for our customers and communities.

“Performance at Avanti is steadily improving and, since the introduction of the new timetable in mid-December, the number of services has increased by more than 40 per cent compared to last summer, with more seats and better frequencies.

“Today’s agreement allows our team to continue their focus on delivering their robust plans to continue enhancing services for our customers, including further progress on our train upgrade and refurbishment programme.”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said an improvement plan produced by Avanti West Coast after the DfT previously handed the operator a six-month contract renewal in October 2022 “is working”.

He 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.”

Avanti West Coast is a joint venture between FirstGroup, with a 70 per cent share, and Italian state operator Trenitalia at 30 per cent.

It slashed its timetable in August 2022 in a bid to improve reliability.

This came after passengers suffered weeks of short-notice cancellations, partly due to a sharp decline in the number of drivers voluntarily working on rest days for extra pay.

A new timetable introduced in December 2022 with a “significantly reduced reliance on overtime working” has seen the number of weekday services increase from 180 to 264, the DfT said.

The proportion of services cancelled has fallen from nearly 25 per cent in August 2022 to 4.2 per cent in early March, and 90 per cent of trains are arriving within 15 minutes of the schedule, the department added.

FirstGroup also announced that Andy Mellors has been appointed managing director of Avanti West Coast with immediate effect.

Mr Mellors previously held senior roles at Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and most recently as managing director of the group’s non-franchised rail businesses.

He takes over from First Rail managing director Steve Montgomery, who has been acting managing director of Avanti West Coast since September 2022 following the resignation of Phil Whittingham.

The contract for TransPennine Express – another FirstGroup-owned operator with performance problems–- expires on May 28.

This will be “considered separately with a further announcement in due course”, according to the DfT.