Intercity rail passengers in Manchester will have their options for travelling to London reduced after train operator Avanti West Coast announced it is slashing its timetables.
Under the changes there will be just one train an hour running between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly, rather than the usual three.
Avanti is also suspending its ticket sales, with all the alterations due to come into force on Sunday (14 August).
The operator said it is trying to stop the short-notice cancellations which have affected its operations in recent weeks, but train drivers’ union Aslef has furiously blasted the company, saying it simply does not employ enough drivers.
The RMT trade union has written to transport secretary Grant Shapps about the issue, and Mayor Andy Burnham says he will do the same, blasting the sudden changes ‘with zero consultation’ as a ‘disgrace’.
What is happening to Avanti West Coast services?
In changes which it set out on its website Avanti West Coast said it was putting a limited timetable in place until further notice.
Ticket sales for travel from Sunday until 11 September have been suspended until the new timetable is finalised. It expects tickets for the first week of the new timetable to be available for purchase once again by the end of this week, with further tickets then being released to buy on a rolling weekly basis .
London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly looks set to be one of the worst-hit routes in the country, with two of the three hourly services between the capital and Manchester which are currently running set to be withdrawn temporarily.
Avanti West Coast says it will also be running just one train an hour between London Euston and Glasgow Central, a route which passes through Greater Manchester and stops at Wigan North Western.
The operator apologised for “the enormous frustration and inconvenience” it acknowledged the shifting of the timetables would cause.
Avanti West Coast said anyone who has already booked to travel from 14 August onwards on a train which is cancelled will have their ticket accepted on the service before or after the one they booked.
Alternatively, passengers can claim a full, fee-free refund from the point of purchase if they no longer wish to travel due to the amended timetable. You can find out how to do that here.
What has been said about the timetable changes?
The announcement of the timetable changes has provoked a furious exchange of words between the train operator and Aslef, the trade union which represents drivers in the rail industry.
Avanti West Coast said it is acting because it has had to cut services at short notice in recent weeks because drivers have not been booking on for overtime in return for extra pay on their rest days. It said high levels of staff sickness had also impacted the reliability of the timetable.
Aslef, though, is incensed that the train operator has referred to drivers not being willing to make themselves available for overtime as “unofficial strike action by Aslef members”, saying there is absolutely no obligation for drivers to do this if they do not wish to do so.
It said the blame for services being cut lies solely with Avanti West Coast for not employing enough train drivers.
Avanti West Coast managing director Phil Whittingham said: “The reduced timetable is being introduced to ensure a reliable service is delivered so our customers can travel with greater certainty.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and we are sorry for the enormous frustration and inconvenience this will cause.
“We urge the rail unions to engage in meaningful industry reform talks around modernising working practices and developing a railway fit for the 21st century. We remain open for talks at any time.”
An Aslef spokesperson said: “Avanti West Coast depends on overtime and that is why it is having to slash services. If the company employed enough drivers it wouldn’t be now having to do this.
“Nobody is obliged under the terms of their contracts to work overtime and it being a glorious summer many train drivers on Avanti West Coast are not volunteering to work their rest days.
“It is the company’s problem and the company’s fault that they are dependent on people volunteering for overtime, and it is the passengers who suffer.
“Avanti West Coast has singularly failed to recruit enough drivers over the past three years to deliver the services it has promised to run.”
The RMT trade union on Monday (8 August) wrote to transport secretary Grant Shapps raising its concerns about Avanti West Coast’s description of “unofficial strike action”, which it described as “unsubstantiated allegations”.
In the letter RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Avanti are falsely and shamefully making allegations that this decision is due to unofficial industrial action when the reality is this decision arises from poor management, cutting staffing to the bare minimum and rock-bottom staff morale.
“The government cannot continue to take the side of corporations against passengers and workers.”
The RMT also asked Mr Shapps to confirm he sanctioned Avanti’s decisionand demanded an urgent meeting to discuss if the operator was in breach of its contract with the Department for Transport (DfT) and what measures the Government would be taking.
The union said it wanted to know if this would include sanctions against the operator or the preparation of an operator of last resort ministers could mobilise.
Meanwhile, Mayor Andy Burnham said he would be calling for the Government to strip Avanti of their franchise if the problem was not resolved quickly.