Avanti West Coast timetable ‘shambles’ blasted by Greater Manchester leaders

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Local leaders said there had been no consultation over Avanti’s decision to recuce services between Manchester and London Euston.

A Greater Manchester transport boss has blasted Avanti West Coast for keeping local leaders in the dark over plans to suspend ticket sales and reduce services to London to just one train per hour from next week.

Councillor Andrew Western, chair of the Greater Manchester Transport Committee, said it was ‘unacceptable’ that the rail firm had cooked up the ‘limited timetable’ with the government without consulting city region chiefs.

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“I find it flabbergasting that the Department for Transport have been engaged in this and signed this off, given the economic impact this will have on the city region – and given we are not yet clear how long this shambles will continue,” Coun Western told a committee meeting on Friday.

“The narrative out of government for the last three years has been one of tackling inequality and levelling up. And yet, here we are as a city region being ostracised from what sadly remains the main economic centre in this country.”

An Avanti West Coast train at Manchester PiccadillyAn Avanti West Coast train at Manchester Piccadilly
An Avanti West Coast train at Manchester Piccadilly

The under-fire rail firm issued a ‘do not travel warning’ last Saturday (13 August) and has reduced the number of services per hour, in an attempt to halt the short-notice cancellations which have plagued its operations.

It has also suspended ticket sales for travel from Sunday until September 11, citing drivers refusing to work rest days and overtime shifts for the disruption, ahead of the ASLEF union taking strike action this week.

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Coun Western said that the lack of consultation was ‘unacceptable’ and should not happen again.

“I appreciate that there will be times when decisions need to be made quickly and in the interests perhaps of passenger safety and other reasons that may arise,” he told Matthew Worman, Avanti’s regional growth manager. 

“But the lack of dialogue, the lack of understanding that the impact that a decision such as this could have, really has inflamed tensions around this. This would be a difficult enough decision for us to bear the impact of without that having happened.”

Coun Western – Labour leader of Trafford council – also slammed the firm’s claim that its hand had been forced by industrial action, as working rest days and overtime is not compulsory – albeit Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had labelled it an ‘unofficial strike’.

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“Actually Avanti’s service has – as you yourself acknowledged – been collapsing for some time with the increased number of cancellations between Manchester and London,” he said, addressing Mr Worman.

Several members of the committee also expressed their ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’ over the decision to slash timetables indefinitely. 

“This desperately needs resolving,” Coun Western continued.

“I think that, as a minimum, rather than the Department for Transport signing this off and accepting we can be cut off from the capital in this way, they should be reviewing the franchise.”

Mr Worman accepted that the comments regarding communication and engagement were ‘an absolute fair challenge’.

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“I think, in hindsight there was a better way to do this,” he said. “That may well have been, even if it was a quick call to the relevant senior people at TfGM and the GM Mayor to give a ‘heads up’ and to tip off that this is what we’re thinking to do.”

However he insisted that Avanti was trying to learn how to better engage with ‘stakeholders’.

He also addressed comments from Coun Angie Clark, who strongly criticised the company’s reliance on overtime and drivers working on rest days.

“Every operator relies on overtime and rest day working,” he told the meeting.

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Manchester Piccadilly on the first day of the rail strike 21 June 2022Manchester Piccadilly on the first day of the rail strike 21 June 2022
Manchester Piccadilly on the first day of the rail strike 21 June 2022

“We don’t, as an industry, have a full establishment of drivers that are there to operate every single train. It has historically worked like that, and I suspect will continue to work like that, rightly or wrongly.”

He added that the company had been in the middle of recruiting 250 drivers – who take 12 to 18 month to hire and deploy –  but ‘Covid stopped all of that’.

“That isn’t an excuse but it’s part and parcel and also one of the drivers of where we have got to as well,” he continued.

“The sickness is also relevant as well and also the industrial action. When you put all that together, that’s not a small number – 250 drivers were in our recruitment pipeline to provide extra resilience for putting in more trains in future into our franchise and operating the base timetable as well.”

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Earlier in the meeting Coun David Meller had read out a statement from an Avanti driver who had contacted him, which claimed it was still possible to run two services an hour, but the firm ‘don’t want to plan to do any better, it’s easier just to blame the driver’.

Mr Worman said that, while this driver may be prepared to work rest days, there were ‘not many’ who did.

“If we could operate the trains and have the confidence we could run more than one train an hour we would be doing it,” he said.

“That goes hand-in-hand with the commercial question. We want to run more trains because obviously there’s more revenue coming in, so that’s going to impact us as well.”

Greater Manchester Transport Committee met at Manchester Town Hall Extension on Friday (12 August.)

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