Avanti West Coast gets six months to prove itself

The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) said on Friday it has placed FirstGroup’s Avanti West Coast on a short-term contract and challenged it “to deliver the urgent increase in services required.”

Avanti West Coast runs train services between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

The company is majority owned by Aberdeen-based bus and rail giant FirstGroup plc alongside minority partner Italy state-owned Trenitalia.

UK transport minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “We have agreed a six-month extension to Avanti to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect.”

FirstGroup said in a stock exchange statement: “FirstGroup plc announced that it has agreed with the Department for Transport (DfT) to extend the current contractual arrangements for the West Coast Partnership (WCP) to the end of March 2023.

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

“WCP is currently operating under an Emergency Recovery Measures Agreement (ERMA) which was put in place by the DfT in September 2020 to provide continuity for rail passengers and the industry during the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The ERMA arrangements for WCP were previously set to expire on 16 October 2022 and will now run until the end of March 2023 under broadly the same terms and conditions.

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

FirstGroup CEO Graham Sutherland said: “We are committed to working closely with government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway that serves the needs of our customers and communities.

“Today’s agreement allows our team at Avanti West Coast to sustain their focus on delivering their robust plan to restore services to the levels that passengers rightly expect.”

The DfT said: “Over the past few months, Avanti has seen major operational issues primarily caused by a shortage of available drivers.

“Nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service this year between April and December.

“This has meant the company has begun to add more services as new drivers and those who need re-training become available to work.

“They have also added extra trains on its key London-Manchester and London-Birmingham routes, bringing service levels closer to normal running.

“With Avanti’s previous contract coming to an end, the short-term extension will see it continue to run services on the route until 1 April 2023.

“This window is designed to provide Avanti with the opportunity to improve their services.

“The government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a National Rail Contract that will have a renewed focus on resilience of train services and continuity for passengers.”