Like England Test cricketers cowardly praying for rain, Avanti West Coast, the operator of trains on Britain’s main intercity artery, could well be thanking the heavens for the latest intervention to mask its failures.
A nationwide drivers’ strike coinciding with the Conservative conference in Birmingham in October will at least provide a handy excuse when thousands of London-based ministers, MPs, their political aides and other influential visitors are confronted with the extraordinary prospect of not being able to book a train between the UK’s two largest cities.
For long-suffering passengers wanting to take the fast service between the capital and hubs such as Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, it won’t feel that different. Nevertheless, overshadowed by Britain’s seismic political upheavals of recent weeks, Avanti has largely dodged the political scrutiny and sanction that its astonishing collapse merited.
Six weeks have now elapsed since the operating company, a joint venture between FirstGroup and Italy’s state-owned Trenitalia, announced it was suspending ticket sales and cutting its schedules from seven to four trains an hour due to “severe staff shortages” – leaving just one train an hour on critical routes, and with plenty of those still being cancelled owing to lack of drivers and crew.
Regulars report a spiral of decline: overcrowded carriages, knock-on delays, understocked shops, unflushable toilets. The very fact of running a reduced timetable means that one additional cancellation piles on more and more disgruntled passengers into even worse conditions, multiplying the complaints and stress for the frontline crew.
While the rail industry reported it was doing everything it could last week to help people travel to pay their respects in London to the Queen, Avanti could only muster a few extra services – with some planned additions also cancelled because of staff sickness. Chartering extra trains for the funeral weekend has only underlined the firm’s desperation.
One consistently vocal critic has been the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who demanded urgent intervention for the commemoration. But as he noted, even those people who managed to book travel in recent days were barely receiving adequate services – reporting “short-notice cancellations; broken on-board equipment; and short-formed trains, preventing them from taking the seats they had booked”.
What has gone wrong, and how can it be fixed? The crucial immediate factor declared by Avanti when it first admitted it was unable to fulfil its schedules was the lack of drivers, or at least ones willing to work overtime. About 400 services a week were operated by volunteers on rest days; Avanti now could only muster the crew for 50. The managing director, Phil Whittingham, poured oil on the fire by declaring it “unofficial strike action”, infuriating the Aslef union and poisoning relations.
Whether or not that misstep cost Whittingham his job, he officially departed last week. With its contract coming up for renewal in talks next month, Avanti may have needed to offer up a change and a reboot to the Department for Transport.
Few industry observers are able to explain exactly why the operator has plunged into particular trouble when most rivals also rely on rest-day working from staff who have also overwhelmingly backed strikes. Some, like TransPennine Express and Northern, have indeed also suffered frequent short-notice cancellations and cut timetables because of a lack of trains; and LNER is also running fewer services.
But Avanti is the most prominent and remains, even in its stripped down schedule, the most unreliable, according to recent data: more than one in five of its remaining trains were more than half an hour late on Friday.
Questions over management are clearly in the frame, with the pronounced decline since the FirstGroup-Trenitalia joint venture took over in 2019 what had been, since privatisation, Virgin Trains.
Rail historian Christian Wolmar said of Virgin’s era: “The toilets stank but at least the trains ran, to a much busier timetable, and it was reasonably reliable.
“Now the service is very poor, the staff don’t come through the train, there are just the basic announcements and nothing else – there seems to be a lack of engagement throughout.”
Covid has obviously played a part: from the stress and workload sending more drivers into retirement to changing the whole financial underpinning of the railway, with franchises ripped up as passengers stayed home, leaving operators on emergency contracts.
Wolmar says: “There is no profit except in cutting costs: the Treasury is not interested in revenue growth. It opens a wider question – I don’t see why anyone is going to take on these passenger service contracts for 1.5% margins. It doesn’t seem worth the reputational risk.”
What it has allowed, however, is for Avanti to run a fraction of its timetable without facing financial collapse. And given that the previous transport secretary Grant Shapps appeared to concur that “unofficial strike action” was to blame, Avanti could escape any penalty for failing to run services.
For some, Avanti’s woes speaks to a wider industry malaise. “There’s a strong sense of drift in the railway in general,” says Roger Ford of Modern Railways magazine.
A promised root-and-branch review was delayed and shelved during Covid before being unveiled in spring of 2021; but rising inflation has since turned industrial unease into a standoff, and the architects of the Williams-Shapps plan are off the scene. A new Great British Railways is supposed to be bringing new passenger service contracts to rail by 2024; but then, Avanti originally came into being as a joint venture that would allow FirstGroup to bring HS2 trains to the west coast in 2026, a fanciful thought now.
A spokesperson for Avanti West Coast said: “We know we’re not delivering the service our customers rightly expect and we apologise for the enormous frustration and inconvenience. Resolving this situation requires a robust plan that will allow us to gradually increase services without being reliant on train crew overtime, which has fallen dramatically in recent weeks.”
The company’s promised recovery operation will require it to find a way to recruit and train enough drivers and regain the goodwill of its staff. In the meantime, Ford said, the DfT is unlikely to want to take away its contract and inherit the mess.