Avanti West Coast under fire: HS2 Cutbacks threaten Manchester services

Avanti West Coast must ‘do better' warning by MPs Credit: PA

Avanti West Coast has been told to “do better” by the rail minister after criticism by politicians, passengers and business leaders for its 'poor performance'.

The latest call for improvements comes amid warnings HS2 cutbacks could “badly hit” Manchester services.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who represents Chorley, criticised the “appalling service” on the West Coast Main Line.

That was echoed by a Manchester business owner, who often travels to London the night before a meeting, who told MPs he “can’t rely” on Avanti.

Rail minister Huw Merriman said Avanti’s performance had “improved dramatically” Credit: PA

Rail minister Huw Merriman said Avanti’s performance had “improved dramatically” when the Government last year decided to renew its operating contract for up to nine years.

In response to Labour MP Jeff Smith (Manchester Withington) asking if the Government regretted the “premature decision”, Mr Merriman also told the Commons: “Avanti are in the process of hiring 70 drivers per year.

“I have spoken to Avanti about matters that were raised in the chamber today and also about their recent service, we know they need to do better, we are holding them to account to ensure that they do.”

Why HS2 axe could mean slower, more crowded trains between London and Manchester

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh earlier said:

“What does the Secretary of State think it says about the performance standards in the contracts he signed with failing operators that senior executives at Avanti, whose cancellations now run at 17%, could boast about the free money that’s too good to be true from the taxpayer?”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper replied: “Avanti haven’t got any money under the performance regime because they haven’t delivered appropriate enough quality, demonstrating we only pay for good performance.

“On the specific issue she raises, I and the rail minister have raised that with Avanti, senior executives at First have agreed with us that those comments were appalling and they are taking steps to deal with that issue within the company.”

Ms Haigh countered: “They were disgraceful from Avanti, but the problem goes to the contracts that he is signing with such failing operators.”

Avanti last month apologised for the “isolated” incident.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the Conservative Party Conference "I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project." Credit: PA Images

Elsewhere at transport questions, shadow transport minister Stephen Morgan said a leaked document shows the decision to cut parts of HS2 will reduce capacity on the West Coast Main Line.

In October last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelled the plan to extend HS2 between the West Midlands and Manchester amid spiralling costs.

Rail services in the North 'poorer now than they were in 2016'

Mr Morgan said: “When the Prime Minister made the decision to scrap HS2, his department said the plan would ‘lead to increased capacity on the West Coast Main Line’. But, minister, that’s not correct, is it?

“I have a leaked document from his own officials that proves it. In it, they admit that this decision will mean fewer seats than today, with Glasgow and Manchester badly hit … does he accept he will be the high-speed rail minister who left behind slower trains and fewer seats?”

Mr Merriman said: “We don’t comment on documents that may or may not have been leaked … the HS2 train design was always to have a capacity for 500 seats.

Projected image of HS2 train. Credit: HS2

“If those trains are doubled up to 400 metres, then, of course, that’s 1,000 seats. The Network North document committed half a billion pounds to look at capacity and how further capacity can be unlocked.”

He said the HS2 line “being built to Birmingham” will “reduce the journey times to Birmingham” as well as to Manchester and Liverpool.

An Avanti West Coast spokesman said in a statement: “We would like to apologise to our customers who had their journeys affected by previous cancellations on our network and thank them for their patience.

“In December, we experienced a shortage of train crew due to historic leave agreements, elevated sickness levels and ongoing industrial disputes.

“As with all operators, we also experienced issues during this period with infrastructure and weather-related challenges on the network, meaning that we had to cancel an increased number of services. This had a bearing on our previously improved levels of performance.”

The company expects timetable changes and driver recruitment and training to help in the long term, and cancellations for which it is responsible have decreased to below 5% in the last four-week period.

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