Leaders say Avanti needs to come up with an acceptable plan for Manchester to London service

The train to London from Manchester Piccadilly on 18 August was surprisingly quiet. The few passengers sat and looked at the news on their phones, or texted work colleagues that they would be on time after all, having expected to battle crowds and delays caused by services cut to the bone and strikes called by unions RMT and TSSA on Network Rail for that day. 

Without consultation and under the banner of blaming workers Avanti took a unilateral decision to cut off Manchester indefinitely

It was the calm after the storm. Last night (Wednesday 17 August) the scene was very different. Commuters shared pictures on social media of crowds of people trying to get on the 8pm train from London back to Manchester. Families with young children queued alongside people who had been in the capital for business meetings, and when they finally got on board the train, there were reports of mass standing in the aisles and a chaotic seat booking system that resulted in arguments among passengers. 

While strike action has indeed been the cause of delays and difficulties on many services this summer, in this case it was action by the train operator. On 14 August Avanti West Coast cut the number of trains between London Euston and Manchester from one every 20 minutes to one an hour as part of cuts in place “until further notice”. Tickets can only be bought only a few days in advance. 

The company has stated that the reduction was due to “unofficial strike action” by drivers. However, ASLEF, the union which represents drivers, pointed to the operator’s staffing levels, which relies on drivers to work on their rest days to be able to provide full coverage. It said the only way to solve the problem was to employ more drivers.

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: “The truth is that the company does not employ enough drivers to deliver the services it has promised. In fact, the company itself has admitted that 400 trains a week are dependent on drivers working their rest days (that is, working overtime on their days off)."

Andy Burnham Mayor Candidate Manchester Manifesto Labour
Andy Burnham, Bev Craig and Sadiq Khan say Avanti took a decision to cut off Manchester indefinitely Image: Confidentials

The same day that saw chaos on the trains, the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham met with Avanti West Coast to urge them to find a solution to the mass cancellations. Mr Burnham said he was "not at all convinced by their explanations nor their timetable for restoring services."

A statement from the Mayor read: "We have asked Avanti to produce a recovery plan that helps passengers in the short-term but which also commits to providing more trains per hour between Greater Manchester and London as quickly as possible.

"In the immediate term, we asked Avanti to consider the declassification of trains – suspending first class restrictions – to make more seats available on the booking system at an affordable price."

Mayor Burnham has said if the service does not improve it was made clear to the company that he will ask the new Prime Minister to strip them of this contract.

Avanti West Coast Train
Avanti West Coast has considerably reduced its service between Manchester and London Image: Confidentials

Pressure has been mounting on Avanti West Coast as soon as the company took the decision to reduce services. On 9 August, Manchester City Council Leader Bev Craig (along with Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan) wrote to Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps, saying, "Without consultation and under the banner of blaming workers - Avanti took a unilateral decision to cut off Manchester indefinitely."

The letter said: “Our cities rely heavily on the West Coast Main Line and this unilateral withdrawal of services, on the basis of what appears to be a complete failure of Avanti’s senior management to manage rostering and rest day working, is frankly a national outrage.”

“It also reflects extremely poorly on an operator that should be working hard to bring the public back to rail."

“Avanti’s decision to suspend ticket sales damages the efforts of other public transport operators, making it harder for people to take the train and other sustainable forms of travel.”

Mr Shapps responded to the letter with a missive of his own which placed the blame at the door of drivers and the ASLEF union, stating: "Your crude attempt at misdirection over the real cause of the problem is clearly connected to the fact that your party has received significant sums from ASLEF over recent years, the union which is causing the problem. ASLEF is indeed an official affiliate of the Labour Party. Union Paymasters are calling in their favours and pulling your strings."

Donations to the Central Labour Party from ASLEF in the last five years total £22,725 according to the Electoral Commission registration of donors (individual MPs have received further donations to bring the total to £81,984.50). ASLEF voted to remain affiliated with Labour after a motion was put forward to disaffiliate from the party back in May.

FirstGroup, a parent company of Avanti West Coast alongside Trenitalia, recently reported an operating profit rise to £806.1 million in 2022 against £285.8 million in 2021.

Follow Lucy Tomlinson on Twitter at @hotcupoftea

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