Britain’s most powerful mayors have warned one of the main train operators serving their cities that it will be stripped of its contracts by the end of the year without a significant improvement in its service.
Senior northern Tories also told the Observer that Avanti West Coast now had only weeks to improve its services and its reputation or face being replaced, with a cross-party determination emerging not to allow it to run trains into next year if there is no sign of improvement.
Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, and London mayor Sadiq Khan, said Avanti should not be allowed to carry on into 2023 unless it restored previous services between the cities. Andy Street, the Tory West Midlands mayor, said the government would be forced to take action by the new year unless obvious improvements took place.
It comes with the company releasing a new timetable this weekend after months of anger among its passengers. Complaints have included issues ranging from reduced services, cancelled trains, difficulty at buying tickets and the availability of basic services and amenities on packed trains. The firm has said that driver shortages have been behind the poor performance. However, Burnham said that services had been “disgraceful and the treatment of passengers has been appalling”.
“These are people who often paid hundreds of pounds for tickets finding no seat,” Burnham said. “We were promised when they slashed the number of trains that it would bring stability and certainty to passengers. The complete opposite is the case. The acid test to me is, if they have not restored three trains an hour before Christmas from Manchester to London, then they’re gone. They cannot be allowed to continue this chaos into 2023. This is the end of the line.”
Khan said that the lengthy disruptions and cancelled services were now causing “economic damage” to major cities. “This chaos cannot go on,” he said. “Avanti has behaved appallingly and is simply failing to deliver the service that is needed. This is harming efforts to encourage people back on to our rail network. For the sake of passengers and our local economies we need to see services restored to three an hour, or it is time for the contract to come to an end in December.”
Street said that Birmingham had been insulated from the chaos by the fact that two other operators provide good services to the city, adding that commuters had been “voting with their feet” and switching. “By any measure they are failing,” he said. “The current service they are producing is simply unacceptable, and exasperated passengers are understandably desperate to see rapid improvements.
“As much as a change of operator at this stage will not ultimately address the underlying issues that are behind Avanti’s poor performance, I am sure the [Department for Transport] will step in if the timetable change does not produce an improvement for passengers.”
The issue is also causing serious concern among red wall Tory MPs. John Stevenson, the Carlisle MP and chair of the west coast main line all-party parliamentary group, said he continued to receive poor service: “Just this week, I was on a train scheduled for four hours. It took five hours. When I arrived for my train to London, it was cancelled. They now have serious issues with the numbers of drivers available, which is a valid issue. Yet under the previous franchise holder, we had what most people would have said was a pretty good service.
“We’re now getting a new timetable. If the service doesn’t improve and there’s not an obvious and recognisable improvement, the government has got to seriously look at pulling the franchise.”
An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said: “We know in recent months our customers have not been getting the service they deserve. We are sorry for the enormous amount of frustration and inconvenience this has caused and are grateful for the patience our customers have shown. Crucially, the new timetable is based on a robust and sustainable roster for our people without reliance on overtime, and has been achieved by working with our people and the unions.”
It said the new timetable would provide for Manchester returning to three trains an hour to and from London while services between London and Birmingham would operate every 30 minutes.