Government grants contract extension to under fire West Coast Main Line operator

The Government has penned an extension to its current arrangements with West Coast Main Line operator, West Coast Partnership, despite mounting anger from business and passenger groups over its poor service.

The rail group, run by transport giant First Group and which includes the Avanti West Coast franchise, has been granted permission to continue providing rail services until October 15 this year.

The original agreement was due to expire at the end of this month.

First Group said today the extension will operate broadly under the same terms and conditions as the current agreement.

The WCP rail contract comprises the operation of Avanti West Coast and acting as shadow operator to the HS2 programme.

It covers services from London, through the Midlands, to Liverpool and Manchester and beyond to Scotland.

Discussions are ongoing with DfT regarding the longer-term National Rail Contract for WCP.

In August last year, political leaders in Greater Manchester and London mayor Sadiq Khan criticised Avanti West Coast over cuts to a number of services to the capital branding the decision “completely unacceptable”.

Later that month business leaders from Greater Manchester reiterated politicians’ concerns over the vastly reduced train service between the region and London.

And last month WCP leaders were lambasted over their poor services at The Northern Transport Summit 2023 in Liverpool’s Mersey Maritime Museum, after one of its team pondered how the industry can get better at rebuilding public confidence and trust in public transport.

Responding, Northern Powerhouse Partnership chair, Henri Murison, said: “You have got a lot to answer for in asking that question.

“The fundamental point is, if you want people to use the public transport system it does need to be reliable.

“Fundamentally, the disjointed relationship between the Department for Transport and your organisations and the workforce has led to a terrible situation which has disproportionately affected northern cities.

“And I do not care whether or not every argument that Andy (Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham) makes is true in exact detail about quite how terrible it has been, Andy and the northern mayors have been right.

“It has been an economic disaster that we have had these problems for the last few months and I do think, having sponsored this event, you should be really clear to apologise for what you have done to the northern economy before you start talking about how we do a repair job.

“Before the repair job, we need the apologies first, please.”

Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup chief executive, said after today’s contract extension: “We are working closely with government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway for our customers and communities.

“Performance at Avanti is steadily improving and since the introduction of the new timetable in mid-December, the number of services has increased by more than 40% compared to last summer, with more seats and better frequencies.

“Today’s agreement allows our team to continue their focus on delivering their robust plans to continue enhancing services for our customers, including further progress on our train upgrade and refurbishment programme.”

Transport Secretary, Mark Harper said: “The routes Avanti West Coast run are absolutely vital, and I fully understand the frustrations passengers felt at the completely unacceptable services seen last autumn. Following our intervention, Rail Minister Huw Merriman and I have worked closely with local leaders to put a robust plan in place, which I’m glad to see is working.

“However, there is still more work to be done to bring services up to the standards we expect, which is why over this next six months further improvements will need to be made by Avanti West Coast.”

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “This rail service is of critical importance to the economy of Greater Manchester, but the performance from Avanti is still not good enough.

“That’s why this decision to extend the contract will be met with disappointment here and across the North West.

“Some improvements have been made but there are still persistent issues, such as the difficulty in booking tickets in advance. Even today passengers still cannot book tickets for the end of next month or indeed for the bank holidays in early May.”

He added: “The fact that the Government has only permitted a six-month extension to Avanti’s contract highlights that Ministers clearly recognise that further improvements are required.

“Most people in the North West would have wanted this contract to be removed today. The time for excuses has passed – they either improve or hand back the franchise.”

The transport group also announced today that Andy Mellors has been appointed managing director of Avanti with immediate effect. Andy previously held senior roles at Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and, most recently, as managing director of the group’s non-franchised rail businesses.

He takes over from Steve Montgomery, First Rail managing director who has been acting managing director of Avanti since September 2022.