Avanti West Coast given six-month contract extension and told to 'drastically improve services'
Rail operator Avanti West Coast has been given six months to improve services - after it provided an "unacceptable" service to rail users.
The Government’s announcement comes after Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham wrote to Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and urged her to strip the company of its contract unless the axed services were reinstated soon.
In August, the operator severely reduced its timetable, including running just one train per hour between Manchester and London.
The timetable was slashed to cut short-notice cancellations after a sharp decline in the number of drivers voluntarily working on rest days for extra pay.
The Department for Transport said nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service this year between April and December, meaning that more services have started to be added as new drivers become available to work.
It added that the company is planning to increase from 180 per day to 264 trains per day on weekdays as more drivers become available as well as continuing to recruit more train staff.
Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: "We need train services which are reliable and resilient to modern day life.
"Services on Avanti have been unacceptable and while the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers.
"We have agreed a six-month extension to Avanti to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect."
FirstGroup plc, which co-owns Avanti West Coast in a joint venture with Italy’s Trenitalia, said it was "committed" to providing services that meet people’s needs.
Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup chief executive officer, said: "Today’s agreement allows our team at Avanti West Coast to sustain their focus on delivering their robust plan to restore services to the levels that passengers rightly expect."
Last month, the company published a plan to reinstate some services on certain days from 27 September.
Timetables on other days were due to be boosted "as soon as possible" ahead of another increase on 11 December.
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “Putting Avanti West Coast on notice marks a significant shift in tone under the new Secretary of State.
"At last, there is a clear recognition of the crisis engulfing the country’s most important railway line and the management failure that has led to that.
“However, the lack of an acceptable rescue plan from the company - and clear conditions from the Government - means very few people in Greater Manchester will support this extension.
"The thought of another six months of what we’re currently experiencing is a huge concern."
Avanti West Coast’s contract was originally due to expire on 16 October.
Transport for the North Chair, Lord Patrick McLoughlin, said: “Our Members are naturally disappointed, as it’s communities and businesses across the North that are being impacted by this sub-par level of service that is undermining economic growth and the well-being of many people across the region who haven’t been able to rely on this service for far too long now.
“Returning to having a good, reliable service on the West Coast Mainline is a pro-growth policy that will benefit the North of England’s economy, and as such it should be a priority as the current level of service is just not acceptable.
“There now needs to be a clear action plan in place with transparent targets and consequences for the company if they do not meet them - and TfN are ready and willing to help provide oversight if called upon - as what matters above all else is getting back to putting passengers first.”
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