Troubled Avanti West Coast, which runs trains along the West Coast route between London and Scotland has been given six months to fix its problems or face losing its license.

The license was due to expire next week, but it’s been given a short reprieve to show that it can turn performance around. The Department for Transport (DfT) says that the short extension was merited as the company has been adding services to replace the ones it cancelled due to a shortage of train drivers.

Back in August, the company announced, with very little warning that it would be drastically cutting its timetable due to a shortage of drivers, and stopped selling advance tickets. Some routes, such as between London and Manchester were cut from three trains an hour to just one an hour.

The shortage was caused when their existing train drivers stopped volunteering to work on rest days, which the company had been relying on to fill a shortfall in staff numbers. The train company blamed the Aslef union, although the union pointed out that it wasn’t official strike action and just a coincidence that the majority of its train driver members chose to stop volunteering for extra hours.

The company now has until April 2023 to show that it can recover the service back to an acceptable level. The government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a National Rail Contract that will have a renewed focus on the resilience of train services and continuity for passengers.

A few months ago, Transport Minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton, indicated that the train company could be put onto a National Rail Contract, but was unable to confirm if that could be arranged by October. This 6-month extension to Avanti West Coast’s contract gives the train company time to improve, but also the government time to prepare an alternative contract if needed.

Nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service this year between April and December. This has meant the company has begun to add more services as new drivers and those who need re-training become available to work. They have also added extra trains on its key London-Manchester and London-Birmingham routes, bringing service levels closer to normal running.

The company will be required to deliver a significant, sustained and reliable increase from about 180 trains per day to 264 trains per day on weekdays as new and retrained drivers become available. Avanti’s regional growth manager, Charlie French recently indicated that the December timetable change that the entire rail industry uses will also be a moment where Avanti will have a “hard reset” of its services.

However, although services are improving, there is still industrial action to contend with as well, and apart from the national strikes affecting most train companies, Avanti will be affected by another strike on Saturday 22nd October when train managers who are members of the RMT union strike in a row over the imposition of rosters.

Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “The problems facing Avanti over recent weeks stem from old working practices that mean shifts are often covered by existing drivers volunteering to work above their 35 contracted hours. This antiquated practice shows just how urgent it is for us to modernise our railways, so passengers benefit from reliable services that don’t rely on the goodwill of drivers volunteering to work overtime.”

Avanti West Coast’s managing director Phil Whittingham resigned in September due to the problems the company is dealing with.

Avanti West Coast, a joint venture between FirstGroup and Trenitalia has run services on the West Coast Main Line route since December 2019, taking over the route from Virgin Trains.


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One comment
  1. ChrisC says:

    Many of the issues affecting Avanti should have been dealh with years ago. The pandemic isn’t the cause of them – it’s brought them to light.

    You can’t suddenly recruit and train new drivers in 6 months and that is what is causing a lot of Avanti’s issues – lack of drivers.

    And that is an issue that has been known about for years yet neither the TOCs or the Government have ever had a proper plan for recruiting and training drivers to cover things like retirements – which can be planned years in advance based on a drivers date of birth. A company not analysing such data and planning for it is a company that is planning for its own failure.

    Mind the government seems pretty bad at workforce planning for any sort of specialist workers such as doctors and nurses and other health professionals.

    And I believe there is no bar to employing drivers to work on a weekend as part of their contract so overtime by other drivers isn’t required on a regular basis or even pat time drivers who may prefer to work only weekends.

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