Northern transport leaders demand Avanti be shunted off West Coast franchise

Avanti West Coast

The board of Transport for the North is to write to the Government demanding it strips train company Avanti of its West Coast Main Line franchise “at the earliest opportunity”.

It came after a report to the board that stated, “a continuation of the current situation is unacceptable to the North.”

The decision followed an angry meeting in Leeds yesterday (March 20) when the board, including Metro Mayors Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram, Tracy Brabin, Oliver Coppard and Jamie Driscoll, voiced their dissatisfaction with the train operator’s continued woeful performance.

Steve Montgomery, managing director at First Rail, which owns Avanti, and managing director, Andy Mellors, were both in attendance at the meeting, chaired by former Transport Secretary, Lord Patrick McLoughlin.

Mayor Burnham had an angry exchange with Montgomery, saying: “Your company has inflicted huge damage on our economy for coming up to two years now since the timetable collapsed in 2022.

“All the things you said then you’re saying again today. That explains why trust is very, very low … You’re not fixing issues on the most important railway line in the country,” reported LBN.

Mayor Rotheram suggested a deadline should be set for Avanti to improve, and if it is not met TfN should push for the licence to switch to an Operator of Last Resort model.

Two options were considered by the board – to set a target for improvement by June or face ‘further measures’ or to terminate the contract straight away.

After hearing from Avanti’s MD Steve Montgomery about the poor performance over many months, the board opted to take immediate action and passed a motion to write to the Secretary of State asking for the firm to be taken off the key West Coast Main Line route “at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Transport for the North will now write to the Secretary of State for Transport that Avanti West Coast’s contract should be terminated at the earliest possible opportunity, with the Operator of Last Resort taking on responsibility in the short term for the delivery of long distance services on the West Coast Main Line.

In December, TfN wrote to the Transport Secretary asking him to instruct officials to conduct a critical review into Avanti West Coast’s operation, given the deteriorating service, after the operator announced a number of cuts to services over the busy Christmas period, and the board highlighted the economic impact this was having on the region.

Responding to the board’s decision, TfN Chairman, Lord McLoughlin, said: “Today’s board was very clear. The performance on the West Coast Main Line by Avanti has been so poor, for so long that action now must be taken.

“We will be writing statutory advice today to the Secretary of State calling for Avanti to be relieved of its contract. The travelling public deserve a service they can rely on. But Avanti has fallen far too short of expectations for far too long now.”

However, it is unlikely the Government would take immediate action as it is restricted in terminating a contract until at least three years since its start.

Avanti, much to the anger of Northern leaders, was granted a new nine-year term in September 2023, meaning it could retain the licence until 2026.

In August, 2022, 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 in February 2023 Avanti 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.”

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