Ministers have granted troubled UK train operator Avanti West Coast a six month contract extension following a “very significant” improvement in services in recent months.
The Department for Transport on Monday temporarily renewed the contract to run trains on the West Coast mainline until October, but said there was “still more work to be done” to bring operations “to the standard we expect”.
The operator, which is a joint venture of the UK’s First Group and Italian state-owned operator Trenitalia, runs trains on some of the country’s busiest intercity routes connecting London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.
Avanti has been struggling to operate a full timetable since July after a significant number of drivers stopped working overtime shifts as relations with management deteriorated. The sudden loss of staff led to a near collapse in services, and sparked outrage from passengers and politicians.
Ministers gave Avanti an initial six month contract extension in October, alongside a warning that it would nationalise the service unless reliability improved.
The government on Monday said the introduction of a new timetable in December had led to a “very significant improvement across services” as reliance on overtime working was reduced. The number of weekday trains had risen from 180 per day to 264, while cancellations dropped from nearly one in four trains in August to 4 per cent in early March.
But transport secretary Mark Harper said more work was needed to reduce cancellations, run a more reliable weekend service, and communicate with passengers. “Over this next six months further improvements will need to be made by Avanti West Coast.”
The near overnight collapse in relations between drivers and management last summer came in the early months of the long-running wider industrial dispute on the railways, as unions push for pay rises to offset inflation. Drivers union Aslef claimed the reliance on overtime — a standard practice in many parts of the industry — exposed a failure by Avanti to employ enough staff.
Avanti is not the only operator under scrutiny by the government. Ministers have also warned Transpennine Express, another First Group company, that it could lose its contract to run trains in the north of England if it cannot improve services after drivers there also stopped working overtime.
Data released on Friday showed almost a quarter of all TPE trains were cancelled between February 5 and March 4. A decision is expected in the coming weeks, but ministers have said they are mindful that taking over the service is unlikely to lead to a major recovery in services unless a new overtime deal is struck with Aslef.
The government effectively renationalised the railways during the Covid pandemic, with operators running services under management contracts.
First Group said it was “focused on delivering . . . robust plans to continue enhancing services” at Avanti. Aslef did not immediately comment.