Avanti West Coast has been told it must “drastically improve services” as the government awarded the operator of the London to Glasgow line a six-month extension to its contract.
The government’s controversial decision means the rail company, which runs trains between London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, will be able to continue running services until next April. The current contract had been due to expire on 16 October.
The train company has been heavily criticised after significantly reducing its services since August, cutting the number of trains between London and Manchester to one an hour, and releasing tickets only a few days in advance.
The transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said Avanti’s performance had been “unacceptable”.
Avanti, which has blamed the reduced timetable on a shortage of train drivers, said it had started to increase services on some routes and 100 additional drivers would be trained by December.
“We need train services which are reliable and resilient to modern day life,” Trevelyan said. “Services on Avanti have been unacceptable, and while the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers. We have agreed a six-month extension to Avanti to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect.”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, and Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, have said Avanti should lose its contract unless it urgently increases services.
Burnham said on Friday after the government announced the extension that there needed to be a review of Avanti’s performance in mid-December so a new operator could be ready to run the line at the start of April if necessary.
“At last, there is a clear recognition of the crisis engulfing the country’s most important railway line and the management failure that has led to that,” he said. “However, the lack of an acceptable rescue plan from the company – and clear conditions from the government – means very few people in Greater Manchester will support this extension. The thought of another six months of what we’re currently experiencing is a huge concern.”
Burnham said the government needed to monitor Avanti’s performance on a daily basis, with reports released publicly each week, before a mid-December review in consultation with mayors and leaders from London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
“The damage that Avanti’s failing service is inflicting on our economy, and the huge disruption to passengers, is completely unacceptable,” he said. “The company has shown itself to be unable to stabilise their service and fix problems with ticketing and the onboard experience for passengers.”
FirstGroup, which owns Avanti West Coast in a joint venture with Italy’s Trenitalia, has said it plans to increase services from about 180 trains a day to 264 on weekdays as more drivers become available. It has also said it will improve ticketing services.
“We are committed to working closely with government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway that serves the needs of our customers and communities,” said Graham Sutherland, the chief executive of FirstGroup. “Today’s agreement allows our team at Avanti West Coast to sustain their focus on delivering their robust plan to restore services to the levels that passengers rightly expect.”