Avanti West Coast wins last minute contract extension

Updated 10.55

Avanti West Coast’s contract to provide intercity services on the West Coast Main Line has been extended to October, less than two weeks before the arrangement had been due to expire. A new managing director has also taken over.

Avanti, which is owned by FirstGroup and Trenitalia, had come under fire because of its high number of train cancellations and a reduced timetable which it introduced last summer in a bid to work within its resources.

Its contract was due to end on 31 March, but will now continue until 15 October.

Transport secretary Mark Harper 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.’

Figures published by the Office of Rail and Road at the start of this month revealed that Avanti had cancelled 10.5 per cent of its services in the three months to December last year, which was the worst figure for any operator, although CrossCountry was only just ahead with 10.3 per cent, while TransPennine Express was third worst, with 7.7 per cent.

Announcing Avanti’s contract extension today, the Department for Transport said it had recorded ‘significant improvements, including running 40 per cent more services and cancellations falling to 4.2 per cent’, although it also warned that ‘further improvements will be needed over the next six months’.

In a notice to the London Stock Exchange this morning confirming the extension, FirstGroup also announced that Andy Mellors has been appointed managing director of Avanti, and that he will taking up his duties immediately.

He has previously had senior posts at Great Western Railway and South Western Railway, and most recently he has been managing director of Firstgroup’s open access rail businesses division, which is responsible for Hull Trains and Lumo. He takes over at Avanti from First Rail managing director Steve Montgomery, who has been acting md of Avanti since September last year.

FirstGroup’s chief executive officer 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.’

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh was critical of the extension. She said: ‘Avanti has literally broken records over the last six months for delays and cancellations, and the Conservatives’ answer is to reward failure with millions more in taxpayer cash.

‘If this is what success looks like to ministers, it shows that under the Conservatives our broken railways are here to stay.

‘The next Labour government will put passengers back at the heart of our railways, and build the infrastructure fit for the century ahead, unlocking jobs and growth.‘

The RMT has also condemned the DfT’s decision, pointing out that ‘Avanti also plans to scrap at seat service catering from May which will mean standard class passengers will not have the option of an at seat service, serving sandwiches, snacks and drinks.’

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said ‘this was a case of reward for failure which will mean that Avanti owners FirstGroup can continue to make profits on what even Ministers have today admitted is still a substandard service’. 

He continued: ‘The government is keeping privatisation afloat regardless of the cost to the rail passengers, rail workers and the taxpayer and the service itself. It is quite clear that the West Coast contract should be bought back into public ownership along with the rest of the railway.’

Meanwhile attention is turning to TransPennine Express, which is also owned by FirstGroup and has also recorded high numbers of cancellations. Its two-year National Rail Contract ends on 28 May, and the DfT said its future ‘will be considered separately with a further announcement in due course’.

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