The UK Department for TRANSPORT (DFT ) has placed rail operator Avanti West Coast on a short-term contract and challenged it to deliver the urgent increase in services required.

Over the past few months, Avanti has seen major operational issues on the West Coast Main Line it has been contracted to operate since 2019, primarily caused by a shortage of available drivers. As such, The DfT has chosen to award the operator a 6-month contract extension to assess whether service levels can improve.

The West Coast Partnership (WCP ) franchise, which Avanti operates, has been running under an Emergency Recovery Measures Agreement (ERMA) since September 2020 to provide continuity for rail passengers and the industry during the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The ERMA arrangements for WCP were previously set to expire on 16 October 2022 and will now run for a further 6 months under broadly the same terms and conditions. Discussions are ongoing between Avanti and the DfT regarding the longer-term National Rail Contract for WCP.

The short-term extension will see Avanti continue to run services on the route until 1 April 2023. This window is designed to provide Avanti, which is owned by FirstGroup and Trenitalia, with the opportunity to improve its services.

The DfT will subsequently assess Avanti’s performance while considering a new National Rail Contract.

“We need train services which are reliable and resilient to modern day life. 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,” said Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan

Some of the problems facing Avanti stem from old working practices, which mean shifts are often covered by existing drivers volunteering to work above their 35 contracted hours.

Avanti has already outlined some planned improvements to the service it operates. Nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service between April and December this year. This has meant the company has begun to add more services as new drivers and those who need re-training become available to work.

Other improvements planned by Avanti include increasing service from about 180 trains per day to 264 trains per day on weekdays; continuing traincrew recruitment to reduce reliance on rest day working to operate services; and extending booking options for passengers, making all ticket types available in advance.

“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. 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,” said FirstGroup CEO Graham Sutherland.

A DfT spokesman told Manchester Evening News said a six-month contract is “unusually short” as rail contracts in the UK are almost always over a course of years, not months.

This suggests that Avanti could be on thin ice with the DfT seriously considering placing the WCP franchise in the hands of another operator should Avanti not be able to turn things around

Responding to the news, Lord Patrick McLoughlin, chair of Transport for the North (TfN), said: “Our Members are naturally disappointed, as it’s communities and businesses across the North that are being impacted by this sub-par level of service that is undermining economic growth and the well-being of many people across the region who haven’t been able to rely on this service for far too long now.

“Returning to having a good, reliable service on the West Coast Mainline is a pro-growth policy that will benefit the North of England’s economy, and as such, it should be a priority as the current level of service is just not acceptable.

“There now needs to be a clear action plan in place with transparent targets and consequences for the company if they do not meet them – and TfN is ready and willing to help provide oversight if called upon – as what matters above all else is getting back to putting passengers first.”