But the mayor's pleas may fall on deaf ears at Department for Transport

Lord Lexden called it an “unfortunate and benighted railway”, while Lord Goddard of Stockport described the timetable as a “fantasy island”.  And these are just the comment fit to print – ask any customer on platform six waiting for an Avanti train that may or may not appear and the terms used would surely be stronger.

Andy Burnham's letter is just the latest in a litany of concerns about the troubled operator.

Today, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham released a letter he has written to the Transport Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevaylan, describing the "profoundly negative impact" the situation on the West Coast mainline is having on passengers and the Greater Manchester economy.

If the situation doesn't improve, say Mayor Burnham, he "will be unable to support a new contract for Avanti."

Avanti announced a plan last month to restore three trains per hour between Manchester and London from December.

The mayor has called for a consistent service of at least two trains per hour between Manchester and London by the end of October as a "staging post". 

If Avanti is unable to make this commitment, Mr Burnham believes the company’s contract should be terminated when it is considered for renewal next week (16 October).

Andy Burnham Speaks To The Media About Avanti Trains At Media City Metrolink Stop
Andy Burnham addresses the media Image: Confidentials

Andy Burnham's letter is just the latest in a litany of concerns about the troubled operator. The mayor has previously expressed his disquiet over the bare-bones timetable, lack of advance tickets and sudden cancellations. Questions raised in the House of Commons last month described an "appalling performance", "a dreadful company" and "woeful failure". 

A recent Transport for the North committee meeting vibe shifted from formal meeting to more familiar tones as members described their recent experiences on the service as "the worst".

In the same meeting, Andy Burnham commented: "I'm not at all sanguine they are doing everything they can. People are losing confidence in rail travel in a very serious way in our part of the world... The argument they sell to us is that they are going to reduce the timetable to make it more resilient. Honestly? The Avanti situation just disproves that. They reduced [the timetable] and it's just awful.

"Every day of this damages the economy of this city... I'm sorry to be blunt but it's too important to this city to be anything other. We lost visitors at Manchester Pride and all kinds of big events.

"People are saying they are not sure they can invest. It is too important to be passed over."

House Of Commons Parliament Credit House Of Commons
An urgent question was asked in the House of Commons Image: House of Commons

However, despite the pasting Avanti has received from several parties, including Andy Burnham, Gary Neville, Labour MPs, Conservative MPs, Transport for the North, The House of Lords and many of its passengers and own staff, astonishingly, there is a reasonable chance the beleaguered train company will retain the franchise.

The original West Coast Partnership contract (which replaced the Virgin contract in 2019) was due to expire last year. It was extended due to an Emergency Recovery Measures Agreement (ERMA) to give the government and train company some room to deal with problems caused by COVID. 

Back in March 2021, the government said it would seek to obtain a direct award of the West Coast contract to Avanti (a direct award is not put out to tender). The award was projected to last up to 10 years – a period the RMT has branded “a decade of profiteering”.

At the time RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “If the Government is serious about meeting our climate change targets and building back better then it must put an end to this crony capitalism, and bring the West Coast Main Line, and the rest of the railway, into public ownership.”

At the time, the company commented: “We look forward to working with the DfT on the new contract, which will be customer-centric and with an appropriate balance of risk and reward for all parties.”

Since then, the ERMA was extended to 16 October, after which theoretically a new operator could take over. However, there have been no signs of inviting any other operators or consulting the Operator of Last Resort (the term for the body that runs franchises on behalf of the government). Indeed, in April the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Transport Baroness Vere said the government was still in negotiations with Avanti over the direct award.

On Avanti’s side, 135 new Hitachi vehicles are nearly ready to come on line, expected to be in service in early 2023, while the company states that it is currently working on a December timetable. Not the actions of a company expecting to lose its contract any time soon.

So why are the government so keen to retain Avanti? Part of the reason is that when the West Coast Partnership was negotiated, Avanti became “shadow operators” for HS2. The company is protected from revenue risk while HS2 beds in. It would be a difficult contract to unpick while Avanti, in terms of HS2 at least, has done nothing wrong.

Crowds On The Platform In Manchester Avanti Trains Timetable
Crowds on the platform Image: Confidentials

Force Majeure

The company has told the government that it should not be penalised for failing to meet performance targets under a "force majeure" clause. Force majeure clauses are used when factors beyond reasonable control prevent a train operator from fulfilling its services, such as disruptive weather conditions – and strikes.

The company faced strong backlash from customers, staff and MPs when it sought to blame the chaos on “unofficial strikes” back in August.

It said that drivers refusing to work on their rest days was the cause of the reduced schedule which saw trains to London from Manchester dwindle to one an hour.

Unions immediately slammed back at those claims, pointing out that drivers were entitled not to work any extra days over their timetabled hours and that management was at fault for not providing adequate cover.

If the government agrees the so-called strikes were the cause of Avanti's inability to run the full service then the company may still be eligible for the direct award.

Avanti West Coast Pendolino 7 20
An Avanti West coast Pendelino Image: Avanti

What now?

Transport minister Trudy Harrison said “all options remain on the table” when questioned by MPs on the situation in September.

“Withdrawing Avanti’s contract is one of those options, but we must bear in mind the implications of that.”

The minister defended Avanti, saying the problem lay with the training of drivers which takes around two years. As no training has taken place during the pandemic, the effects are being felt now. Many drivers are nearing retirement age and not being replaced at a suitable rate. Solutions mooted included increasing the number of female drivers and establishing a rail academy in the north.

For now, it seems that the most likely outcome is that the ERMA will roll on for another few months, giving Avanti time to sort out its timetable mess and allowing the government to conclude its contract negotiation and award the long-term contract. 

Meanwhile, Avanti has committed to updating the timetable in December when the next tranche of new drivers complete training. Until then, passengers will have to cross their fingers and keep on pressing refresh in the hope they will be able to book tickets - if they decide to travel at all.

Follow Lucy on Twitter @hotcupoftea

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