Statutory transport body Transport for the North (TfN) has called on the UK Government to conduct a “critical review” into rail operator Avanti West Coast and instruct the train operating company (TOC) to declassify premium seats to increase capacity on its trains.
In a letter to Transport Secretary Mark Harper, TfN said its board had unanimously condemned the performance of the operator and said the “poor performance” is impacting the economy of the North and the wellbeing of residents dependent on Avanti’s services.
It said: “There is an urgent and pressing need for the Avanti West Coast operation to be subjected to a critical review by the Department as a matter of priority.
“This review should be required to identify and secure immediate action that restores performance to an acceptable level: in this the Department should actively consider all available options.”
Other UK rail lines, including Northern Rail, have been effectively nationalised in recent years by being taken under the control of the “operator of last resort”.
The body’s call to the Department for Transport comes after industry figures revealed that the operator’s services were at 46.4% for punctuality and reliability while 31.8% of its trains had been cancelled or severely delayed in the last eight days.
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Avanti’s services are also already running on a reduced timetable through December with less frequent weekend trains, a decision made in October in response to staff shortages.
A spokesperson for the operator pushed back on the TfN’s demands and highlighted significant disruption on its networks that have affected its services through the month, saying it was working hard to minimise cancellations.
They said: “Declassifying our trains will not solve the current challenges we are seeing on our network. Our Train Managers already have the discretion to declassify our services if they are busy due to disruption, and have done so several times recently.
“As well as disruption, we have been seeing some short-notice cancellations on our network and would like to apologise to our customers for the inconvenience caused as we know this is not good enough. These service changes are a result of resourcing challenges where we have seen a shortage of train crew due to historic leave agreements.”
TfN’s calls are especially notable given the recency of Avanti’s long-term contract extension by the government, after years of issues leading to it being placed on short-term contracts for nearly 12 months.
That decision came in September after the operator had reportedly managed to bring down cancellations from 25% in August 2022 to just 1.1%, with the DfT saying that the operator needed long-term stability to make plans for the future.