Ministers have insisted the crises at Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express are partly the fault of rail unions, as Labour demanded action over claims that 18,000 northern services had been “lost” in a month.
The rail minister, Huw Merriman, told MPs the government would be deciding early in the new year whether to renew Avanti’s contract, as he spoke of concerns over whether the operator would restore its intercity timetable as promised this month.
In a debate forced by an urgent question in the Commons, Labour demanded the government put the two operators on a “binding and remedial plan” to restore services, after months of chaos and cancellations blighting the northern economy and lives of passengers.
The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “Today almost 40 services have been cancelled on TPE [TransPennine Express] alone – and they were just the cancelled figures. If this were happening elsewhere, the government would have taken far greater action.”
She added: “Six years ago TPE had exactly the same issues … Here we are again in crisis and it’s the public paying the price.”
Haigh said the government had “continued to reward failure”, including signing off on a decision for £12m in dividends to be paid by Avanti to its owners, FirstGroup and Trenitalia, and urged ministers to “claw back taxpayers’ money”.
Labour said Avanti and TPE had cut 18,000 trains a month, with figures from the Office of Rail and Road showing that there were only 61,000 planned services for the four-week period to 12 November, compared with 79,000 in the same period in 2018. The “planned services” figure allows a fairer comparison, it argues, as cuts made before 10pm the night before a scheduled service are otherwise excluded from cancellation figures.
Merriman told MPs that the government would be holding the operators to account, but blamed unions for the breakdown of agreements over rest-day working. He said: “We recognise that current performance is not acceptable and having a significant effect.”
Avanti’s contract was renewed in October for six months, but Merriman suggested the operator would only have until January to prove it remained fit to run the service. He said ministers “will need to see improvements in place in the beginning of the year”, when they would make the decision.
However, he said that the trouble at Avanti and TPE was down to a number of factors, including sickness and withdrawal of voluntary driver rest-day working and overtime.
He said Avanti had recruited and trained 100 more drivers to help restore services later this month after the 11 December timetable changes, but warned: “It will be very difficult to put that in place … The plan is 11 December, but if we can’t get the strikes called off, my concern is our ability to roll that out.”
The RMT union has called four 48-hour strikes in the next two months, starting on 13-14 December. On Wednesday, the TSSA union said staff in operational, station and onboard roles would strike at Avanti on 13, 14, 16 and 17 December and at c2c on 17 December, plus action short of a strike at 12 train operating companies and Network Rail in the run-up to Christmas.
Merriman said TPE had paid its drivers 1.75 times the rate for rest-day working under an agreement that ended last December, while Covid had exacerbated a lack of drivers by slowing training.
He added: “The train companies must do more. We will fully hold them to account for factors within their control. We look to others for matters that are outside their control … The only way to get long-term performance improvements is to reform the way we work on the railways … It requires agreement from unions and workforce as well as government.”
Merriman suggested unions were barring a “seven-day operation”, prompting Holly Lynch, the Labour MP for Halifax, to respond: “It’s not an any day of the week service.”
MPs on all sides urged the rail minister to outline what action would be taken. Chris Clarkson, the Conservative MP for Heywood and Middleton, said Avanti appeared to be running “a schedule designed using a tombola”. He said Greater Manchester “cannot afford the service we have at the moment”.
Merriman said he would soon meet with unions and rail bosses together in a room, after the transport secretary, Mark Harper, last week said he would “work to facilitate” an agreement in the long-running pay dispute.