It would take a lot to make Arran Kent ditch the train to drive across the country for gigs. The musician, 32, has persisted with Avanti West Coast, even when unable to book a ticket, and even on the day of a staff strike. He paid top whack to go from Preston to London last Saturday, almost missing his performance because the train arrived two hours late.
If that was averagely bad, the return home on Sunday was, he says, “like an apocalyptic film”.
“I couldn’t believe what was going on,” Kent recalls. “There were pregnant ladies lying on the floor in the corridors to try and be near the breeze because they were overheating. You couldn’t get into the toilets. Some men were having to urinate in empty Pringles pots.”
A direct 190-mile, three-hour journey from the capital turned into an 11-hour epic requiring three Avanti trains. Problems with the power lines left him and 450 other passengers trapped inside for four hours, without food, water or air conditioning, just past Milton Keynes.
They were eventually disembarked via a bridge on to another crowded train running back down to the line, taking him to the previous station. To complete his misery, the service he caught home left on time but arrived in Preston an hour and a half late at 10pm.
Not all recent Avanti travel trauma has been the operator’s own fault. Although its train managers were on strike on Saturday, it could not control further mayhem caused by Network Rail engineering work and signalling failure. On Sunday, overhead power lines came down in bad weather, while on Monday attempts to restore services came up against broken-down freight trains on the mainline, leading to more cancellations and delay.
Nevertheless, passengers have lost their confidence in the intercity operator, a joint venture between the UK’s FirstGroup and Italy’s Trenitalia, after a sharp decline in its service this summer that has commuters, businesses and civic leaders along Britain’s major rail artery, from the capital to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, in despair.
Like many firms, Avanti relied on overtime, or rest day working, by drivers and crew to run its full timetable, until industrial relations and staff morale started dipping fast. Suddenly few staff wanted to volunteer, and more were reporting sick, leaving many trains cancelled at short notice and passengers unable to book advance tickets.
The disruption has hit some particularly hard. There are only two standard spaces for disabled passengers on Avanti trains; and limited advance tickets and overcrowding owing to reduced services have made travelling for disabled people virtually impossible, says Jas Taylor, 23.
“People think it’s acceptable to sit on my wheelchair, or lean against me, finding any space between the wheels or pressing against my back to slide in or store their cases,” they say. “It’s a consistent experience for me when I travel now. It has made me very scared and upset to take the train.”
Businesses too are adapting their operations because of the unpredictability of Avanti’s services.
Mercè and Steven Cozens, principal consultants at Knutsford-based management consultancy Think Beyond, used to travel on Avanti to meet clients in London. Since recent disruption they have resorted to waking up at three in the morning to drive five hours to see customers in the south-east.
They say it is now quicker, and cheaper, to reach clients in Europe than to travel by train to London on Avanti.
“We could go to some of our European customers twice and stay overnight versus the cost of the train to London Euston,” Steven Cozens says. “We’re almost back to a pandemic type situation with clients in the south. We’ve had to move most of our meetings to video.”
Until recently, Ian O’Donnell, director of Real Point design and marketing agency, would get on a 7.30am from Coventry three days a week, to arrive in Euston with time to spare before his 9am meeting. After delivering an afternoon seminar in London, he was still able to make it home in time to have dinner with his family in the Midlands. “It was efficient and worked well,” he says.
However, in the last few months, O’Donnell has encountered so many delays, cancellations and “absolutely rammed” journeys that he has stopped using Avanti West Coast trains altogether. “It has become just too unreliable.”
Avanti’s timetables were pared back during Covid as travel dropped away. But as passenger numbers returned to about 75% of pre-pandemic levels this year, Avanti proved unable to meet rising demand. Punctuality and reliability declined through spring, and by summer 2022 it was already the worst performing train company, according to Office of Rail and Road data, with only 77% of trains arriving on time.
Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands, says insufficient attention to rail services plus industrial action have made travelling between some parts of the Midlands more expensive and “desperately inconvenient” for passengers.
There are alternative routes from Birmingham to London with other operators such as Chiltern and London Northwestern, but in places like Coventry that rely on Avanti, it’s a more significant problem, Street says. “If it were to persist, it might be difficult to do business between London and the Midlands … It makes those practical arrangements a lot less possible,” he said.
At the start of August the company announced it could no longer run its schedules, and cut back to just one train an hour on key intercity routes, blaming “unofficial strike action”, which unions denied. Adding to outrage, Avanti’s contract meant it was not penalised significantly for failing to run promised services; lost revenue is the government’s problem.
Meanwhile, further rail strikes are coming next month – this time across the industry, after last Saturday’s walkout by Avanti’s train managers, who have been “completely neglected”, according to the RMT union.
On a visit to Manchester Piccadilly, some passengers express sympathy, despite having been inconvenienced by poor services and strikes. Waiting on a platform, lecturer David Swanson says: “The responsibility lies with the bosses of the rail industry. I’m in full solidarity with the rail workers.”
Last weekend aside, according to Avanti, things are improving. In September, its managing director was axed and the firm drew up a recovery plan – promising to restore the bulk of the pre-Covid timetable by Christmas, with about 100 newly recruited and trained drivers now on board. Avanti’s contract was extended for another six months earlier this month, with a warning from ministers that it was on trial to deliver.
That needs to happen soon. Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of the Liverpool City region, says poor transport connectivity is costing the northern economy billions of pounds – with TransPennine Express, another FirstGroup operator, now starting to rival Avanti for cancellations and disruption. “Wherever you go in the north, the story is the same: urgent appointments missed, late arrival at work and school, cut off from vital public services, isolated from friends and families – and some put in dangerous situations.”
A spokesperson for Avanti apologised but said the incidents at the weekend were “caused by matters beyond our control”.
Trains’ backup battery power typically lasts about 90 minutes, and in longer delays other facilities are switched off to maintain power to essential lighting and toilets, he said, adding: “We are sorry for the inconvenience our customers faced and would like to thank them for their patience and understanding. We encourage anyone whose journey has been affected to claim delay repay compensation.”