The Daily Telegraph

Avanti poised to retain contract despite cuts

- By Ben Woods

‘We know we’re not delivering the service our customers rightly expect and we apologise’

AVANTI West Coast is poised to win a fresh long-term contract with the Government despite a backlash over cuts to its London-to-manchester service.

A move by most of its train drivers to stop volunteeri­ng for overtime has led Avanti to reduce the number of trains running between London and Manchester from three to one every hour.

Despite no indication of when the timetable will return to full capacity, the Government has reportedly agreed to award it with a new deal to manage the line.

The rail operator has been warned by Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, that it is in the “last chance saloon” after moving to a pared back timetable from Aug 14.

However, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, is said to believe the root of Avanti’s problems lies with the trade unions, according to The Sunday Times, which first reported the story. The contract win comes after Phil Whittingha­m, the managing director of Avanti, agreed to step down on Sept 15 to “pursue other executive leadership opportunit­ies”.

Avanti moved to a heavily reduced timetable last month in an attempt to increase the reliabilit­y of its services, which had succumbed to a spate of cancellati­ons and delays.

It relies on drivers working overtime, with 400 trains a week staffed by those on days off.

Last month, that number dropped to around 50, causing huge delays. Earlier in August the company also had to stop selling tickets.

Avanti, of which 70pc is owned by Firstgroup and 30pc by Trenitalia, runs trains from London to cities in the north of England and Scotland.

The operator’s contract is due to run out on Oct 16. It is understood that the Department for Transport has been meeting with Avanti regularly to discuss its performanc­e.

A government spokesman said: “People deserve certainty and confidence that their train will run on time, and while the change of schedule was unavoidabl­e, it should minimise the fallout for passengers.

“This is a prime example of why we need to modernise our railways, so passengers benefit from reliable timetables that don’t rely on the goodwill of drivers volunteeri­ng to work overtime in the first place. As with all contract awards, [the] Government will consider all options when Avanti West Coast’s contract expires on Oct 16.”

The problem comes as Britain’s railways continue to suffer disruption from repeated strikes by workers, who are demanding better pay and working conditions.

It is expected that about 40,000 Network Rail workers and staff spanning the 14 train operators will walk out again this month on Sept 15 and 17. Those strikes are expected to bring the railways to near a standstill.

A spokesman for Avanti West Coast said: “We know we’re not delivering the service our customers rightly expect and we apologise for the enormous frustratio­n and inconvenie­nce.

“Our customers and communitie­s deserve a dependable train service, so we’re currently working hard to rebuild our timetable in a resilient and sustainabl­e way.

“Resolving this situation requires a robust plan that will allow us to gradually increase services without being reliant on train crew overtime, which has fallen dramatical­ly in recent weeks.”

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