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Call for Avanti West Coast to be nationalised over poor performance

Northern leaders have called for Avanti West Coast’s train services to be nationalised as its performance is “too short of expectations”.

Transport for the North (TfN), a body which provides advice to the Government, passed a motion on Wednesday to urge Transport Secretary Mark Harper to terminate the operator’s contract “at the earliest possible opportunity”.

It wants the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Operator of Last Resort (OLR) to take on responsibility for long-distance services on the West Coast Main Line between London Euston and Scotland.

The OLR already runs London North Eastern Railway, Northern, Southeastern and TransPennine Express.

Lord McLoughlin, who chairs TfN and is a former transport secretary, said: “Today’s board was very clear. The performance on the West Coast Main Line by Avanti has been so poor for so long that action now must be taken.

“We will be writing statutory advice today to the Secretary of State calling for Avanti to be relieved of its contract.

“The travelling public deserve a service they can rely on, but Avanti has fallen far too short of expectations for far too long now.”

Members of the TfN board include Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram.

Office of Rail and Road (ORR) figures show Avanti West Coast cancelled 9.1% of its services in the four weeks to March 2.

A spokesperson for FirstGroup, which owns the operator, said: “Our team at Avanti West Coast, and everyone connected with the train operator, are all working hard with a singular focus on delivering the service that customers expect.

“In recent months the service has been below expectations on some days for a variety of reasons, including driver unavailability due to historic leave policies as well as elevated sickness levels.

“Changing the operator won’t affect these fundamental issues affecting the service, which is why it is vital that we continue working with trade unions with whom we have had recent positive discussions, and continue working with Government and other stakeholders on our plans to deliver long-term improvements in customer experience, resilience and a new fleet.”

Rail minister Huw Merriman told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee last month that Avanti West Coast will “never be able to deliver a proper service” due to provisions in its drivers’ contracts relating to working practices and booking time off.

He said the operator’s drivers cannot be asked to do more than one return journey per shift, and can book time off as little as 48 hours in advance.

In September last year, Avanti West Coast’s operating contract was renewed by the DfT for up to nine years, with Mr Harper claiming it was “back on track” following major disruption.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Stripping Avanti’s contract would just cause more upheaval for passengers rather than solving the challenges the operator is facing. These include restrictive working practices that can’t be reformed without Aslef’s agreement.

“Following the Government’s intervention to put the operator on successive short-term contracts, Avanti did make significant progress during the first half of 2023. However, improvements still need to be made, which is why it’s important the operator continues to address the underlying challenges it faces and the Government continues to hold it to account, if it doesn’t.”