Avanti West Coast boss, who slashed region’s London rail links, to step down

The boss of rail company Avanti West Coast has announced he is stepping down.

Managing director, Phil Whittingham, said today (September 2) that he will leave the company on September 15 “to pursue other executive leadership opportunities”.

Avanti West Coast has attracted strong criticism over the past month for its decision to slash services from the North West to London due to a shortage of train drivers.

Politicians and business leaders from the region have criticised the cut in services as “completely unacceptable”, with some links operating at just a quarter of previous levels, and moves to severely restrict advance ticket purchases.

A letter to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps from Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, leader of Manchester City Council, Bev Craig, and London Mayor, Sadiq Khan early last month said: “The plan to run just four trains an hour from London Euston, with only one service to Manchester, came with no notice nor any consultation beforehand and no date by which the full timetable will be restored.”

It added: “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.”

Earlier this week, leaders of Greater Manchester business organisations followed up with their own plea to Mr Shapps, and Phil Whittingham, voicing their “deep concern and frustration” at the situation, calling for “an urgent restoration of the full timetable”.

Avanti is a joint venture between UK-listed FirstGroup, which has a 70% stake, and Italian state railway company Trenitalia, which owns the remainder.

The company announced this afternoon: “Phil Whittingham, managing director of Avanti West Coast, has decided to step down from his role with effect from September 15, in order to pursue other executive leadership opportunities.

“Phil tranferred to Avanti West Coast as managing director from Virgin West Coast Trains Ltd following the rail franchise change process following a successful 23 years in various roles on the railway.

“Having led the team through the challenges presented by the pandemic over the last two years and into the recovery period , Phil leaves with the team ready for the challenges in delivering the future service requirements.”

Steve Montgomery, First Rail managing director, said: “I would like to thank Phil and wish him well in the future. For the immediate future I will provide executive leadership support to the Avanti West Coast team.”

Avanti, like many other rail companies, is heavily reliant on staff agreeing to work on days off, with as many as 400 trains per week across the industry operated by drivers working overtime in recent years.

The company angered unions last month when it blamed the driver shortage on “unofficial strike action” after a large number of drivers pulled out of overtime shifts simultaneously.

Train drivers’ union Aslef welcomed Whittingham’s departure and said in a statement: “We look forward to working with a new MD who can deliver for passengers and staff.”

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “Avanti West Coast has failed to deliver on their commitment to explain how they will restore services between Manchester and London and failed to bring the stability to the timetable which they promised. Every day that this continues is a day of damage to the Greater Manchester economy and it cannot be allowed to continue.

“Weeks ago, the company tried to blame their workers for the problems. However, their inability to produce a rescue plan by the deadline we set has flushed out the truth: It is managers, not the workers, who are responsible for the chaos. In their desperation to blame the unions for everything, the Government has let this company off the hook and let passengers down.

“This is a company being paid millions of pounds to operate trains on the West Coast Main Line but is only delivering a threadbare service and a very poor one at that. They have to be held to account. So far, Greater Manchester has been doing that alone, but I am now urging the incoming Prime Minister and Transport Secretary to sit down with us and sort this out. This service is critical to our country’s economy and we need to fix it together.”

He added: “For Avanti, this is the last chance saloon. They need to understand the urgency of the situation. They should today be making a full public apology for their failures and providing a detailed explanation of the steps they are taking to fix things. Anything less is further evidence that they don’t deserve the privilege of running the UK’s most important train line.”

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