UK rail operator Avanti West Coast granted 6-month contract extension

Ministers have granted troubled UK prepare operator Avanti West Coast a six-month contract extension following a “very important” enchancment in providers in latest months.

The Division for Transport on Monday briefly renewed the contract to run trains on the West Coast mainline till October, however mentioned there was “nonetheless extra work to be carried out” to convey operations “to the usual we count on”.

The operator, which is a three way partnership of the UK’s FirstGroup and Italian state-owned operator Trenitalia, runs trains on a number of the nation’s busiest intercity routes connecting London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Avanti has been struggling to function a full timetable since July after a major variety of drivers stopped working time beyond regulation shifts as relations with administration deteriorated. The sudden lack of employees led to a close to collapse in providers, and sparked outrage from passengers and politicians.

Ministers gave Avanti an preliminary six-month contract extension in October, alongside a warning that it might nationalise the service until reliability improved.

The federal government on Monday mentioned the introduction of a brand new timetable in December had led to a “very important enchancment throughout providers” as reliance on time beyond regulation working was decreased. The variety of weekday trains had risen from 180 a day to 264, whereas cancellations dropped from practically one in 4 trains in August to 4 per cent in early March.

However transport secretary Mark Harper mentioned extra work was wanted to scale back cancellations, run a extra dependable weekend service and talk with passengers. “Over these subsequent six months additional enhancements will must be made by Avanti West Coast,” he mentioned.

Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor for Larger Manchester, acknowledged that there had been some enhancements to Avanti’s timetable, however mentioned passengers have been nonetheless struggling to guide advance tickets and that there had been a “lack of belief” within the firm.

“This can be a rail service that’s of crucial significance to the economic system of the north-west and it’s nonetheless nowhere close to adequate,” he mentioned. “The overriding sentiment folks will really feel right here is disappointment and frustration, as a result of there was a transparent case for eradicating the contract.”

The close to in a single day collapse in relations between drivers and administration final summer season got here within the early months of the long-running wider industrial dispute on the railways, as unions push for pay rises to offset inflation. Drivers union Aslef claimed the reliance on time beyond regulation — a regular follow in lots of components of the business — uncovered a failure by Avanti to make use of sufficient employees.

Avanti just isn’t the one operator beneath scrutiny by the federal government. Ministers have additionally warned TransPennine Specific, one other FirstGroup firm, that it might lose its contract to run trains within the north of England if it can’t enhance providers after drivers there additionally stopped working time beyond regulation.

Knowledge launched on Friday confirmed nearly one-quarter of all TPE trains have been cancelled between February 5 and March 4. A call is anticipated within the coming weeks, however ministers have mentioned they’re conscious that taking on the service is unlikely to result in a serious restoration in providers until a brand new time beyond regulation deal is struck with Aslef.

The federal government in impact renationalised the railways in the course of the top of the Covid-19 pandemic, with operators operating providers beneath administration contracts.

FirstGroup mentioned it was “targeted on delivering . . . strong plans to proceed enhancing providers” at Avanti.

Aslef didn’t instantly remark.

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