Posted: Thu 8th Sep 2022

Train company that slashed rail links between North Wales, Chester and London could lose contract

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Thursday, Sep 8th, 2022

UK government ministers could withdraw the contract of the train operator that slashed rail links between North Wales, Chester and London.

Ministers are said to be looking at all possibilities for the struggling Avanti West Coast rail service including nationalisation.

Last month Avanti West Coast introduced a reduced timetable for its services which includes slashing the number of daily trains running between Chester to London to just one.

Normally the Avanti West Coast runs five services from Chester to London Euston and five from London to Chester.

The train operator was slammed by politicians and local business leaders after it introduced a ‘limited’ timetable due to what it called an “unofficial strike”.

At the time Avanti said it was “due to the current industrial relations climate which has resulted in severe staff shortages in some grades through increased sickness levels, as well as unofficial strike action by ASLEF members.”

Avanti’s operating model relied on drivers working overtime on rest days, and since July 30 they have largely refused to do so amid a nationwide dispute over pay.

Timetable cuts have led to overcrowding and delays, with the release of tickets days before the date of travel pushing up fares.

ASLEF hit back and said there was no unofficial strike and that Avanti “does not employ enough drivers to deliver the services it has promised passengers it will run.”

Phil Whittingham, Managing Director of Avanti West Coast said he was stepping down from his role from 15 September “in order to pursue other executive leadership opportunities.”

Transport minister Trudy Harrison told the House of Commons all options remained on the table.

During the debate about Avanti at the House of Commons on Wednesday, she said withdrawing the contract was one option, and “all of the implications of that” were under consideration.

Harrison said: “The current west coast franchise agreement is due to expire on 16 October.”

“Like all operators, Avanti has used a degree of rest-day working to operate its timetable.”

“In essence, this means that drivers have been volunteering to work the additional shifts over and above their contracted hours.”

“The industry arrangement has been in place for many years, to the benefit of the drivers, the operators and indeed the passengers.”

“Avanti has a rest-day working arrangement that remains in place with the ASLEF union, which represents about 95% of the drivers.”

She said: “However, on 30 July this year Avanti experienced an unprecedented, immediate and near total cessation of drivers volunteering to work passenger trains on their rest days.”

“This left Avanti unable to resource its timetable and, in the immediate term, resulted in significant short-notice cancellations.”

“Avanti has reduced its timetable in response to the withdrawal of rest-day working. Reducing the timetable provided better certainty and reliability for passengers as it reduced the number of short-notice cancellations.”

Harrison said: “The Department continues to work closely with Avanti to monitor performance, while Avanti continues to review the demand data and the position regarding train crew availability to inform options to reliably increase services.”

“An increase in services between Manchester and London remains an absolute priority and Avanti will continue to look for opportunities to support passengers and businesses along the route.”

“All options are on the table” for discussions on how to proceed but, “The information about those discussions is commercially sensitive at the moment.”

Justin Tomlinson MP said he and Chester MP Christian Matheson are due to meet the new rail Minister next week to discuss the Chester to London line.

“We have been asking for a meeting for six months, during which time the service has gone from terrible to non-existent.”

“When I asked the previous rail Minister why in those circumstances Avanti would be granted a new contract, I was told that it was important to do so to ensure value for taxpayers and continuity of services.” He said.

Clywd West MP David Jones said: “There is now, at best, one through train per day from Holyhead to London.”

“Any travellers from north Wales who wish to go along the north Wales main line have to change once, or perhaps twice; in other words, the north Wales main line has been reduced to the status of a branch line.”

“Whether that is the fault of Avanti—and I am bound to say that I do attribute a lot of blame to Avanti—it is an unacceptable state of affairs for the travelling public of north Wales, so can my hon friend give her best estimate as to when a decent train service will be restored to north Wales?”

In response, Trudy Harrison MP said: “The service to north Wales is unacceptable.”

“That is why the decision that will be taken on 16 October will bear in mind how swiftly we can improve that service to north Wales and, indeed, all the other stations that Avanti West Coast connects people to.”

The West Coast partnership franchise agreement is due to expire on October 16

Earlier this week 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 traincrew overtime, which has fallen dramatically in recent weeks.”

“We would like to thank our customers for their patience and understanding.”

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