The Daily Telegraph
Rail dispute hits plans for travellers from the North
No extra train services for mourners from Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool to get to capital for funeral
‘It would have been a fantastically British tribute to bring the Queen on the royal train, while alleviating stress on the city’
ONE of Britain’s busiest railways is unable to lay on extra services to London this weekend as bosses grapple with a long-running industrial dispute.
Thousands of mourners from Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow are facing disappointment from the fallout of a row over pay and working conditions on the 399-mile Avanti west coast main line.
The firm has only been able to schedule additional services until Friday.
Four extra return journeys are timetabled for today between London and Manchester. Three additional roundtrips will run on Friday, according to an internal memorandum shared with industry chiefs.
However, the “stakeholder bulletin”, seen by The Daily Telegraph, reveals that no extra services have yet been timetabled for this weekend.
Instead, it says: “We are acutely aware that Saturday and Sunday are likely to be extremely busy with people from all over the UK travelling to London to pay their respects. Saturdays and Sundays are particularly difficult at the current time as they had [sic] the highest reliance on overtime.
“Nevertheless, we are examining closely what opportunities there are for additional services on those days and will keep you informed. We are also actively looking at the possibility of chartering additional trains to help carry our passengers and are in discussions with potential providers.”
Avanti was forced to cut services from three to one train an hour between Manchester and London this summer.
Bosses have blamed “staffing issues”. Phil Whittingham, the managing directhe tor, was forced to step down after accusing drivers union Aslef of launching “unofficial strike action”.
Ministers raised the spectre of nationalising the line last week following criticism from Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.
Train operators said on Monday that they would run extra services to allow an estimated 750,000 mourners to travel to London in the coming days – with this paper revealing that some companies are planning to run services through the night.
Avanti, the train operator previously run by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains, and which before the pandemic had almost 40 million passengers annually, is dependent on many of its 3,000-strong workforce to “volunteer” at weekends under contracts dating back many years.
leaked document also reveals Avanti bosses are “liaising with other train operators, particularly LNWR and Chiltern, to see where we can help each other and ensure the timetable is as robust and comprehensive as possible across the whole network”.
The correspondence adds: “We will also continue to engage with staff and prepare to increase services if volunteers for overtime come forward.
“As you know, Avanti West Coast is running a reduced timetable at the moment due to a shortage of train crew, principally because drivers are currently unwilling to sign up for the overtime upon which all train operators rely. We are extremely sorry for this situation.”
A spokesman for Avanti said: “We have been able to put in place up to eight additional services a day on our busiest route between London and Manchester. This will add a total of 16,000 extra seats. We are working to make all fares available as soon as possible. We expect services to be very busy so ask people to allow plenty of time for their journey.”
Conservative MPS said using the royal train would have enabled people to pay their respects to the late Queen on its journey down through the country, alleviating the pressure on London.
“It would have brought her south on the royal train so that crowds could line the route,” a former minister said. “It would have given a focal point for every community, promoted rail travel and been a fantastically British tribute.”
The progress of King Charles III through his new realm took him to Northern Ireland yesterday, almost 100 years after the partition of the island. While the death of the Queen in Scotland has helped solidify the Union, for now at least, it is noticeable how many key elected posts in the UK are held by nationalists. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, the leader of the SNP, has been centrally involved in many of the ceremonials since the monarch died last Thursday at Balmoral.
At Hillsborough Castle yesterday, the King was welcomed by Alex Maskey, the Speaker of the currently suspended Northern Ireland Assembly, and a leading figure in Sinn Fein. More than that, Mr Maskey was interned twice in the 1970s as a suspected member of the Provisional IRA.
Given the history of the province, this was another remarkable encounter, echoing the Queen’s famous handshake in 2012 with the late Martin Mcguinness, one-time IRA commander and by then a member of the administration. A few years later, Mcguinness attended a state banquet in honour of Michael D Higgins, the president of Ireland, at Windsor Castle, in a move that showed how far armed force republicans had moved from their absolutist demands for a united Ireland since the peace settlement of 1998.
The meeting of the King with Mr Maskey continued this process. The Speaker was representing all the political groups at Stormont because the politicians have been unable to agree to revive the assembly while uncertainty continues around the future of the Northern Ireland protocol. But Sinn Fein won the most seats in the recent election, and Michelle O’neill, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, will become first minister once it is up and running again.
For that to happen, progress is needed on the protocol issue, with the DUP urging the new Prime Minister Liz Truss to take a firm position with Brussels over its future. Legislation to override the protocol is going through parliament.
The King is the embodiment of the sovereignty that the Unionists say has been undermined by the deal to keep Northern Ireland closely attached to the EU single market, necessitating a border down the Irish Sea. He said in Westminster Hall on Monday that he felt the “weight of history”. Nowhere is that truer in his kingdom than in Northern Ireland, where the monarchy can still be a force for unity, not division.