UK rail operator Avanti West Coast has been awarded a long-term contract by the Department for Transport (DfT) after months of short-term contracts following concerns over service and reliability.

The decision comes after the operator reportedly managed to reduce cancellations to just 1.1% over the past year, down from nearly 25% in August 2022, with the department saying that a long-term contract was needed to allow Avanti to plan for the future.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “The routes Avanti West Coast operates provide vital connections and passengers must feel confident that they can rely on the services to get them where they need to be at the right time. 

“Over the past year, short-term contracts were necessary to rebuild the timetable and reduce cancellations. Now Avanti are back on track, providing long-term certainty for both the operator and passengers will best ensure that improvements continue.”

They are incapable of running an efficient rail service 

However, despite the renewed confidence from the UK Government, the decision has not been popular with all parties, as the RMT union expressed disappointment at the awarding of the contract, describing Avanti as “one of the worst rail companies on the network”. 

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RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said: “From supplying inappropriate uniforms to staff, mass cancellation of train services and multiple industrial disputes, Avanti have been an unmitigated disaster. 

“They are incapable of running an efficient rail service or treating the staff properly.”

The rail operator, which is owned by FirstGroup and Trenitalia, was initially placed on a short-term contract in October 2022 after high numbers of cancellations and operational issues such as a shortage of drivers on the West Coast Main Line.

A 6-month extension was then granted in March after the DfT said Avanti had made “significant improvements” to its services and developed a recovery plan to address the poor performance but the newest move by the department marks a significant moment of confidence for the operator.

Avanti’s managing director Andy Mellors said: “The last year has been challenging but I would like to thank our customers as well as stakeholders for their patience. 

“There are still challenges ahead but plenty to look forward to on our network, including customer benefits such as the continued award-winning refurbishment of our Pendolinos and the introduction of our new Hitachi fleet, which will increase capacity and further improve our sustainability credentials.”

The new contract will commence on October 15, 2023 and last until October 17, 2032, beginning with a core three-year term until October 2026.

In addition to the Avanti extension, the DfT announcement also saw CrossCountry awarded an eight-year contract with a core term of four years beginning on October 15.