Claims of 'rewarding failure' after Avanti West Coast given six-month contract extension

  • Report by Martha Fairlie, ITV News

A Government decision to grant a short-term contract renewal to Avanti West Coast has been condemned by Labour and trade unions.

The train operator has struggled with reliability and punctuality during parts of the past year.

Its contract was due to expire at the end of March, but has been extended until 15 October.

The Department for Transport said since a 'recovery timetable' was introduced on 11 December, there have been improvements across services, including 90% of trains arriving within 15 minutes of the booked time and a reduction in cancellations.

But Labour and unions accused the Government of rewarding failure.

  • Labour MP Cat Smith says Avanti "couldn't run a bath, let alone a mainline train service".

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said the improvement plan produced by Avanti West Coast "is working", but there is more work to be done.

He said: "The routes Avanti West Coast run are absolutely vital, and I fully understand the frustrations passengers felt at the completely unacceptable services seen last autumn.

"Following our intervention, rail minister Huw Merriman and I have worked closely with local leaders to put a robust plan in place, which I'm glad to see is working.

"However, there is still more work to be done to bring services up to the standards we expect, which is why over this next six months further improvements will need to be made by Avanti West Coast."

FirstGroup chief executive Graham Sutherland said: "We are working closely with Government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway for our customers and communities.

"Performance at Avanti is steadily improving and since the introduction of the new timetable in mid-December, the number of services has increased by more than 40% compared to last summer, with more seats and better frequencies.

"Today's agreement allows our team to continue their focus on delivering their robust plans to continue enhancing services for our customers, including further progress on our train upgrade and refurbishment programme."

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who has long complained of the state of the service in the city region, said: "This rail service is of critical importance to the economy of Greater Manchester, but the performance from Avanti is still not good enough.

"That's why this decision to extend the contract will be met with disappointment here and across the North West. Some improvements have been made but there are still persistent issues, such as the difficulty in booking tickets in advance.

"Even today passengers still cannot book tickets for the end of next month or indeed for the bank holidays in early May.

"The fact that the Government has only permitted a six-month extension to Avanti's contract highlights that Ministers clearly recognise that further improvements are required.

"Most people in the North West would have wanted this contract to be removed today. The time for excuses has passed - they either improve or hand back the franchise."

And Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers' union Aslef, said: "It is, frankly, extraordinary that the Government is yet again rewarding failure.

"Avanti West Coast has continued to cancel services and, every day, continued to let passengers down."

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