The Government has been accused of “rewarding failure” after renewing the contract for Avanti West Coast, despite admitting its services are “not good enough”.
The rail provider has been under fire for cancellations, delays, slashed timetables and a lack of advanced tickets for journeys on the West Coast Main Line.
Peers in Westminster challenged the Government on its six-month extension of Avanti’s contract to April 1, with some calling for the firm to be dropped for its poor service.
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Former rail worker and Labour peer Lord Snape addressed transport minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton, saying: “As recently as June this year, she acknowledged that Avanti’s performance was terrible, since when they’ve had a contract extension.
“Is she aware of the misery on a daily basis that regular travellers on the West Coast Main Line have to put up with from this incompetent outfit?
“And could she tell the House what it would take for the Government to actually do its job and relieve Avanti of any responsibility of being involved with our railway system ever again?”
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Randerson added: “The Government’s answer to this question refers to Covid as a cause of the problem but other operators don’t seem to have had the same problem with training up – GWR, for example.
“The truth is that bad management has undermined staff goodwill and the Government has rewarded failure in this decision.
“Can the minister explain why Avanti have reduced their service, but have been rewarded with the same fee – £6 million fee?
“It’s almost impossible for those poor souls forced to travel on these trains to buy advance tickets and it costs them more as a result. This is a con.”
Labour frontbencher Lord Tunnicliffe highlighted the “seething frustration about Avanti’s ongoing failures” and its effect on travellers.
Lady Vere responded that she knows Avanti’s performance “is not good enough”, and emphasised that the operator is “on probation”.
Insisting that the Government takes Avanti’s performance “very seriously indeed”, she said: “They got this six-month extension for a reason and we will be watching it like a hawk.”
Avanti West Coast cut trains from timetables in August to reduce short-notice cancellations after a sharp decline in the number of drivers voluntarily working on rest days for extra pay.
Customers have also complained that the rail provider only releases tickets a short time before the day of travel and at high prices.
Lady Vere said the number of trains is increasing from 180 to 264 in December and 100 drivers will enter formal service between April and December, allowing for the increased services, and some advanced tickets are now available.
Asked whether this would be the last contract extension, she said: “Obviously I cannot guarantee that because they are on probation.
“Let’s just be clear – there is a recovery plan, it has been received by the ORR (Office of Rail and Road), it has been reviewed by Network Rail’s programme management office.
“It could be that the recovery plan comes into place and, in a few months time, everybody is content with the performance.
“I would like to be a bit pragmatic and practical about all of this, because we do have to look at the alternative.
“The alternative would be to send in the OLR, of course, but there would be legal and contractual processes to go through and what would the OLR do? They don’t have train drivers up their sleeve.
“It is an issue of train drivers, it is an issue of the rest day working agreement not being adhered to, so those issues would remain.”
The OLR is a company owned by the Department of Transport which acts as an operator of last resort for rail franchises that are nationalised.