Government refuses call to nationalise Avanti West Coast

Updated 22 March, 09.30

The Government has rejected a call from the Board of Transport for the North to end the Avanti West Coast contract, which is owned by FirstGroup and Trenitalia. The two companies were granted a National Rail Contract for AWC which started last October and could run until 2032 after there had been two six-month periods of ‘probation’ to allow performance problems to be resolved.

The TfN Board has protested about the continuing high level of cancellations, and voted yesterday at its meeting in Leeds to write to transport secretary Mark Harper, calling for AWC to be transferred to the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort as soon as possible.

During Transport Questions in the House of Commons on 21 March, Labour’s shadow rail minister Stephen Morgan asked: ‘It's a simple question to the Minister today. Will he strip Avanti of its contract: Yes or No?’

Rail minister Huw Merriman replied: ‘No Mr Speaker, we will not.’

He continued: ‘The reason is that there are issues with the West Coast main line that will remain, regardless of who the operator is. It is essential to get underneath the bonnet, look at the issues and fix them, rather than looking just at what is on the side of the car. To take just one four-week period from Christmas, 65 per cent of the delays in that period were down not to the operator but Network Rail, and they involved weather-related issues as well as trespass and, sadly, suicides, which we need to minimise.

’We also have issues with restrictive contracts, and I would like change there. For example, Avanti is unique as an operator, in the sense that its drivers will not double-trip. They will do one return journey, but will not go over the same leg of rail twice. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) asks whose fault that is. That contract was agreed in 1997, so maybe we know whose fault it was.’

Mr Morgan’s colleague, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh, said: ‘There has been nothing more emblematic of the managed decline of Britain’s railways than Avanti West Coast being awarded a nine-year contract extension despite failing passengers again and again.

‘Labour has long been clear that if Avanti is in breach of its contractual obligations, then it should be stripped of that contract. Ministers need to explain whether this is the case and why they are refusing to act.

‘Under the Conservatives, failing operators are rewarded with contract extensions and second chances.

‘With Labour, rail franchises will be brought back into public ownership as contracts expire or are broken.’

The DfT has told journalists that ‘stripping Avanti’s contract would just cause more upheaval for passengers rather than solving the challenges the operator is facing’, while FirstGroup, which owns 70 per cent of AWC, said everyone had been ’working hard’, but agreed that its services had been ‘below expectations on some days’, partly because of ‘historic leave policies’, staff sickness and also because drivers had not been available.

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