Avanti could be stripped of its contact to run services on the West Coast Mainline unless significant improvements are made, the UK’s rail minister has warned the company.
FirstGroup, which co-owns Avanti West Coast in a joint-venture with Italy’s Trenitalia, won a bid to run services on the line back in 2012.
Under the agreement, the Aberdeen-based company was due to operate the service until 2026.
However during the summer period, the operator severely reduced its timetable in an attempt to cut the number of short-term cancellations in response to a sharp decline in the number of available drivers.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham wrote to the then-transport secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan earlier this month urging the Government to strip the company of its contract unless services were reinstated soon.
Burnham raised concerns over the level of service due to Avanti West Coast running just one train per hour between Manchester and London in August.
The line connects Glasgow to major UK cities including Manchester and London.
Avanti has been granted a short-term contract until April 2023 by the Government in order to assess “whether it is capable” of running services on the route to the standard expected by passengers.
The problems faced by the franchise were discussed in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
UK transport minister Kevin Foster told MPs that Avanti has a “clear opportunity to improve its services to the standard we and the public expect” following a reduction of its trains in the summer.
“The Government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a national rail contract for consideration in relation to the route alongside preparations by the operator of last resort for if it becomes necessary for them to step in at the end of the extension period,” said Foster.
The minister said that the Government will hold Avanti “fully to account” for things in its control.
He said: “From December, Avanti plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays – a significant step up from the circa 180 daily train services at present.
“We need train services that are reliable and resilient to modern-day life. While the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to passengers.
“We will hold Avanti fully to account for things in its control, however this plan is not without risk and importantly, requires trade union co-operation.
“The priority remains to support the restoration of services before making any long-term decision.”
Foster continued: “In assessing options for a longer-term contract, the (transport secretary) will consider factors including outcomes for passengers, value for money and the delivery of major projects and investments – in this case HS2, given the links they have with that future delivery model.
“But to put things simply – things must improve during this probation period for this contract to be further extended.”
The SNP’s transport spokesperson Gavin Newlands suggested that the six-month extension is just “kicking the can down the road”.
“Scotland and the north of England have been treated as third-class citizens,” said the SNP MP.
“I doubt the laissez-faire attitude of the DfT (Department for Transport) when it comes to industrial relations at Avanti would last five minutes if home counties commuter services were being slashed in the same way.”
He added: “The six-month extension is seen by everyone as kicking the can down the road.”