Government awards rail operator Avanti West Coast contract to run trains from Liverpool to London for extra nine years after it ‘dramatically’ reduced cancellations. Tony McDonough reports
Train operator Avanti will continue to operate services on the West Coast mainline for another nine years after making significant improvements to its services.
In March the Department for Transport (DfT) reached an agreement with Avanti owner FirstGroup for a six-month extension. But the company was put on notice that it would have to make drastic improvements to the quality of service if it was to keep the contract.
Passengers, business leaders and politicians reacted with fury and disbelief when Avanti introduced a reduced timetable on its services linking Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham with London in August 2022.
Avanti blamed the move on “unofficial strike action” by members of rain drivers’ union Aslef. The union denied the claim.
However, now the rail operator has got its act together and has been rewarded with a new long-term deal. Starting on October 15, Avanti West Coast’s new National Rail contract will have a core term of three years and a maximum possible term of nine years.
After three years, the Transport Secretary can terminate the contract at any point with three months’ notice.
Alongside the recovery plan which prioritised training new drivers, reducing reliance on rest day working and getting tickets on sale earlier, a recovery timetable was introduced.
This has seen services increase from 180 trains per day to 264 on weekdays – the highest level in more than two years.
On Tuesday the DfT said cancellations had consistently been below 3% since March 2023, and as low as 1.1% in July 2023, down from 13% in January 2023.
It also said more than 100 additional drivers had been trained and brought on since April 2022. There have also been improvements to passenger facilities on trains including better seats, lighting and charging points.
Travel Companion, a WhatsApp channel which passengers with accessibility needs can use to get real-time assistance and information on their journeys, has also been introduced.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “The routes Avanti West Coast operate provide vital connections, and passengers must feel confident that they can rely on the services to get them where they need to be at the right time.
“Over the past year, short-term contracts were necessary to rebuild the timetable and reduce cancellations. Now Avanti is back on track, providing long-term certainty for both the operator and passengers will best ensure that improvements continue.”
The DfT says it will stay in close contact with the operator and local stakeholders to monitor Avanti’s performance as it continues its progress to a sustained recovery.
Avanti West Coast managing director Andy Mellors, added: “The National Rail Contract for the West Coast Partnership announced today provides stability for customers and colleagues.
“Over the last six months, we have delivered significant and sustained improvements in operational performance and customer satisfaction.
“Cancellations that Avanti West Coast is responsible for have stabilised at below 2% of scheduled services. The last year has been challenging but I would like to thank our customers as well as stakeholders for their patience.”