Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, has written to the Transport Secretary urging her to ask Avanti to increase services between Manchester and London by the end of the month – or terminate its contract.
But a railway expert has warned that taking Avanti out of the franchise will not necessarily lead to better services, as it will not solve the shortage of drivers.
In a letter to Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Burnham said the company’s plans to wait until December 11 before returning to a longer schedule would cause too much disruption for passengers and hurt Greater Manchester’s economy. .
He called for a constant service of at least two trains per hour between Manchester and London by the end of October as a relay for a return of three trains by December.
If the company was unable to make that commitment, Burnham argued, the company’s contract should be terminated when it renews next week.
It has now been more than six weeks since Avanti West Coast reduced services between London and Manchester to just one an hour.
The company promised the move would bring ‘stability and certainty’ to passengers – but on average 10% of Avanti West Coast services between Manchester and London over the past three weeks have been canceled or significantly delayed. During the same three-week period, 27% of services failed to arrive on time.
The problems are not limited to passengers traveling from Manchester to London. Following the cuts, there is now just one direct train a day from London to Holyhead, Anglesey’s gateway for ferry services to Ireland.
Earlier this week five Tory MPs from Welsh constituencies wrote to Railways Minister Kevin Foster asking the government not to renew the Avanti franchise. The service has become “deplorable”, say MPs.
But an expert warned that removing Avanti from the franchise would not necessarily lead to better service.
Dr Tom Haines-Doran, author of Derailed: How to Fix Britain’s Broken Railways, said: “The problem is the lack of drivers. Avanti opted to cut back on driver spending, leaving the service even more reliant on overtime. When waves of Covid cases are thrown into the mix, the result is unreliable service. The problem is that while it’s easy to downsize quickly to save money, it takes a long time to replenish it.
“Driver training takes a long time. Even hiring drivers from other companies is not a silver bullet, as it takes months to build up “route knowledge”, which is vital for safe operation. Whether the government or Avanti run the franchise, it will be months before services return to something like the three trains per hour passengers were accustomed to.
The Department for Transport said: ‘The Government will consider all options when the Avanti West Coast contract expires on October 16.
He added: “The problems Avanti is facing are a prime example of why we need to modernize our railways, so that passengers have reliable timetables that are not dependent on the goodwill of drivers who are carrying volunteers to work overtime in the first place.”