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Avanti West Coast Contract Renewal

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if she will make a statement on her decision to renew the contract for Avanti West Coast to provide passenger services on the west coast main line.

On 7 October, a short-term contract was entered into with the incumbent operator for the West Coast Partnership. The contract extends the delivery of the West Coast Partnership and Avanti West Coast business for six months until 1 April 2023. This gives Avanti a clear opportunity to improve its services to the standard we and the public expect. 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 should it become necessary for it to step in at the end of the extension period.

The primary cause of Avanti’s recent problems is a shortage of fully trained drivers. Avanti was heavily reliant on drivers volunteering to work additional days because of delays in training during covid. When volunteering suddenly all but ceased, Avanti was no longer able to operate its timetable. Nearly 100 additional drivers will enter formal service between April and December this year, and Avanti has begun to restore services, initially focusing on the Manchester and Birmingham routes.

From December, Avanti plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays, a significant step up from the circa 180 daily services at present. We need train services that are reliable and resilient to modern life. Although the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers. We will hold Avanti fully to account for things in its control, but 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 decisions.

In assessing options for a longer-term contract, the Secretary of State will consider factors including outcomes for passengers, value for money and the delivery of major projects and investment—in this case High Speed 2, given the links to its future delivery model. To put it simply, things must improve during this probation period for the contract to be further extended.

I declare an interest, as I suspect many Members will, as a long-suffering traveller on the so-called rail service on the west coast main line.

By giving Avanti this six-month contract extension, after months of failure and rail chaos, this Government are frankly rewarding that failure. Avanti promised to improve services back in September, and instead it has gone and cut services, introduced this emergency timetable and almost entirely stopped selling tickets online.

The provision of reliable train services is essential for the economic growth and prosperity of more than half the UK’s population. I seek clarification on the metrics the Minister will use to assess improvement or, indeed, further failure, given that the bar is currently set so low. It is clear that the west coast franchise has been fundamentally mismanaged by Avanti. These significant failings mean that staff morale is at an all-time low, which is reflected in the industrial action taken by trade unions. Staff report being overworked and understaffed due to the company’s failure to recruit sufficient staff and fill vacancies. I understand that many station ticket offices are understaffed and, in many instances, the company is failing to meet its regulated ticket office opening hours. As the Government are so tightly managing this contract, what are they doing to resolve these industrial disputes and the issues affecting staff at Avanti?

It seems that the Government are intent on rewarding failure. Rather than bringing the franchise in-house, they have given Avanti an extension. The Government have given Avanti precisely the same management fee despite it running dozens fewer services. This means Avanti stands to receive fees, or profits, worth £6 million for this period. This profiteering is supported by the Government and paid for by taxpayers and passengers. Avanti is part-owned by the Italian Government, so why not the UK Government instead? We could then reinvest any surplus revenue in improving the network for passengers rather than seeing it seep out in profits. When will the Government stop rewarding Avanti’s failure and instead strip it of its franchise and bring the west coast main line back into public ownership?

What metrics will we use? As with all rail contract awards, the Government will act in accordance with the franchising policy statement made under section 26(1) of the Railways Act 1993, which is already publicly available, in assessing whether to award a new contract. As I have said a number of times from this Dispatch Box, we are clear that the current service is unacceptable and will look for significant improvements before April if we are to extend this contract any further.

I always say that bringing something in-house is not necessarily a magic bullet, as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) demonstrated with her recent tweet when travelling on London North Eastern Railway, which is operated by the operator of last resort. For example, there might be issues related to infrastructure, which is of course publicly owned.

Avanti has a plan for improvement and the significant restoration of services in December, and we are seeing new train drivers being trained. Of course, we are seeing the wider impact of industrial action on the network, on which we and the Opposition have very clear views. They support it one day and not the next.

We believe there is a credible plan. There is daily interaction between Avanti and the Department for Transport, with weekly interaction at the most senior level. Ministers are regularly updated, too. We are making sure that a firm eye is kept on this, and we receive regular representations from Members of this House on what needs to happen to ensure this line provides the type of service we all want to see.

I have previously raised my concern about the capacity of FirstGroup, which is a partner of Avanti that also operates the TransPennine service that has been absolutely appalling over recent months, particularly for my constituents who use Lockerbie station. Is the Minister clear that FirstGroup has the capacity both to operate TransPennine and be part of the Avanti partnership and, in both, achieve improvements on the currently unacceptable levels of service?

I have met FirstGroup to discuss the overall position of its franchise. It should be remembered that FirstGroup is also involved in running the Great Western Railway franchise, which runs fairly successfully in the south-west and Wales. Other parts of its operation are going relatively well, are well managed, are delivering good outcomes for customers and are supporting our agenda of growing the rail network. For example, GWR operates the Dartmoor line that was opened last year.

On TransPennine Express, we recognise that a number of factors have affected performance. Again, quite a lot of training is needed following the backlogs caused by covid and related to the line upgrades. It is clear that TransPennine Express services need to improve quite substantially. Again, we look to work with FirstGroup to get the type of improvement plan we want to see.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for securing this urgent question because Avanti West Coast’s continued abject failures are simply unacceptable. Over the course of its contract, Avanti has had the fewest trains on time, more complaints than any other operator and a wholesale failure to train new drivers, which has led to the mess we have to endure today. Despite this, Avanti has been rewarded with a contract extension. The Tories, as usual, are rewarding failure, yet there are gaping holes in the improvement plan announced alongside the contract extension, which will prolong passenger misery.

On the busiest main line in the country, at the busiest time of year, there is not a single bookable weekend service between November and Christmas—not one. The service reductions that the Government signed off were supposed to increase reliability, but they have done the exact opposite. Can the Minister explain today when services will be available to book and why the Transport Secretary failed to demand that as a condition of handing over millions in taxpayers’ cash? Avanti is being paid precisely the same management fee as under the previous contract, even though hundreds of services are not running—why? Travelling across the north is also becoming next to impossible. Today, more than 40 services on TransPennine Express have been cancelled. As my good friend the Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, lamented to me:

“It’s chaos and the Government must intervene.”

So why are they planning to hand TPE an eight-year contract for this service in May? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House as to whether they are preventing a deal between TPE and the workforce which could improve services in the short term?

Today, what the public need to hear from the incoming Government—yet another Government—is a serious plan to get travel across the north back on track; they need to hear a plan to restore services. If the Government cannot get that, they must withdraw the contract, because passengers are sick and tired of excuses.

We have been clear that the current position with services is unacceptable and we expect significant improvements. Long-term contract award decisions will be affected if, as we approach them, the service day to day is not where it should be. The management fees that are paid are specified in the contracts for operating. That said, the performance fee, to which the hon. Gentleman was perhaps also referring, for Avanti for the period beyond the withdrawal of rest-day working and the current timetable reductions is due to be independently evaluated. That is not just done by the Government and it has not yet been done. I suspect that the independent evaluator will want to take on board quite a number of these points, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate why I would not want to give too many comments from the Dispatch Box on what the independent evaluator should do.

As for the plans for improvement, the first point to make, which has already been touched on, is that we are seeing more drivers being trained by Avanti West Coast and there are plans to reinstate the vast majority of the timetable in December. Clearly, when deciding what comes next we will want to make sure that that has worked and it is delivering an acceptable level of service for ourselves and for passengers more widely. On TPE, although we are of course welcoming the fact that we are starting very large-scale investment into that route, the level of which that route has not seen for decades, we need to see significant improvement.

As for moving immediately to cancel the contract, I remind the hon. Gentleman of the quotes in the Manchester Evening News on 6 October that were attributed to Mayor Burnham about how that could bring more disruption in the short term. The idea that putting this situation into the hands of the operator of last resort would immediately resolve a driver shortage and other issues is not one that stands up to any scrutiny.

My constituents have been enduring a pretty terrible service from Avanti for many months, with only one train an hour from Stoke-on-Trent recently. But it is not just about the reliability and the cramped trains; it is also about the availability of tickets, as people are not able to book ahead, which is costing them more because they are having to buy on the day. When the Minister speaks to Avanti, will he make sure that he stresses not only reliability, but availability, so that my constituents can get up and down the west coast cheaply?

Yes, I will. In fact, I have already spoken to some of Avanti’s most senior management and made that point, particularly following representations from hon. Members. I also reinforced it in a meeting I had with FirstGroup more recently, and it has an overall interest in the Avanti operation.

There are 14 trains scheduled this Saturday from Glasgow to Euston, but last Saturday only three actually ran, and yesterday saw more than 15% of Avanti’s Glasgow services cancelled. People in Scotland and the north of England are being treated as third-class citizens. I doubt that the laissez-faire attitude of the 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. When are Ministers going to roll up their sleeves and get involved? Was Mick Lynch not right when he said in evidence to the Transport Committee that Scottish Government politicians:

“have an attitude where they want to resolve the issue, whereas sometimes when we meet politicians down here they want to exacerbate the issue and make us their enemy.”

And that was before the Government tabled their utterly regressive Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill; Tory party ideology is impacting taxpayers and passengers yet again.

The six-month extension is seen by everyone as kicking the can down the road. What work is ongoing right now to ensure that the DFT and Directly Operated Railways Ltd are ready to “take back control” of a key piece of cross-border infrastructure, and we follow the lead of Scotland in ending the disastrous experiment of privatisation?

Work is ongoing to ensure that the operator of last resort would be ready in April to pick up the service. I will touch on some of the issues raised, but not all are within Avanti’s control; merely changing the franchise and who operates it would not resolve issues and problems that have been caused by infrastructure or engineering works, for obvious reasons—those sit in Network Rail’s purview. However, we are certainly not adopting a laissez-faire attitude. Every day, the DFT is engaging with Avanti and TPE about the services. Every week, there are senior-level contacts as well, and Ministers are actively involved with this process. I am a traveller on Avanti trains myself of a Sunday, and the idea that we are not interested in this or that we have some sort of laissez-faire attitude is completely for the birds. As for relationships with the trade unions, the Transport Secretary has met the general secretaries, but we make the point that we are not the employer in this circumstance, and it is for the unions and the operating companies to come to an agreement.

On Saturday, I endured an almost 10-hour odyssey across the UK to go from Barrow to London, for an engagement that I then missed. No one is going to peel an onion for me, but many of us have to endure this twice a week and for our constituents it is many more times than that. They are missing trips to the airport and to see their families, and they are missing their commutes. This is simply unacceptable, and they cannot book ahead and their tickets are ridiculously expensive as a result. Will my hon. Friend confirm that if Avanti does not improve services quickly, it will be stripped of its franchise?

I hear the points my hon. Friend makes. Obviously, he will appreciate that I need to follow the due legal process in terms of any removal of franchise, but we have made clear the criteria that are set out and the need for improvement before April, which is when we would need to take the final decision on a longer-term principle. If the current situation continues, that will clearly be a very strong part of our consideration.

Two weeks ago, I told Avanti in the Select Committee that every train I had booked in the past month had been cancelled. Avanti told me that there had been improvements. Improvements appear to be moving about as fast as the 8.55 from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston—that train was cancelled. We have seen a reduced service, half of all trains late and 60,000 complaints, yet the Government have handed Avanti more than £19 million, including more than £4 million in performance bonuses. What message does the Minister think it sends to the public to reward Avanti in this way for nothing but failure and letting down its customers?

The hon. Gentleman would be aware, had he heard some of what I said earlier, that the performance payments in relation to the period since the timetable reduction have yet to be evaluated independently. Clearly, the evaluation will take into account the actual situation of the delivery of the contract. As this is an independent evaluation, he will appreciate why it is not one I will personally do as a Minister and it is right that it is under that process. As we have touched on, the Government have made it clear to Avanti that significant improvements need to be made in its service. It has a plan to implement for December, which it is confident will deliver a major improvement in the service it is operating. We look forward to seeing it implement that.

I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me a week ago today to discuss Avanti West Coast services to north Wales. He knows that those remain abysmal. Whereas there are normally six direct services a day, there is now just one, if it is not cancelled. What assurances has he received from the company that it will able to return to near normality by December, as promised?

The assurances that Avanti is giving are that its plans for December will restore the majority of direct services into north Wales. DFT officials are engaging daily with Avanti, as I have touched on, because we do not just want to accept an assurance that the service will be better. Clearly, we want to have verified plans for it to be better. We are seeing additional train drivers coming in and we are reassuring ourselves that Avanti’s plans for December do not include the use of driver rest-day working, because the withdrawal of that prompted the major issues in its timetable. Clearly, we would not want Avanti’s improvement plan to be based on that factor. That is where we are at the moment. We are assured that it has the plan to restore the majority of services in December, but clearly we are engaging with Avanti daily and will see what happens in December, and that will then prompt what we do on the long-term franchise.

Avanti is currently able to run approximately 40% of the services out of Euston that its predecessor used to run, with a massive impact on my communities and all those people from London, the biggest destination in the country, who visit the lakes, the second biggest. Staff shortages are clearly the problem, along with a lack of good will in the staff body. There are wonderful people working for Avanti, but there are not enough of them and they are poorly managed. Will the Minister reflect on the fact that one reason why there is such low morale and low commitment to good will and working overtime is the Government-sanctioned programme of ticket office closures, not just on the mainline at Penrith and Oxenholme but in places such as Appleby, Windermere and Grange. Will he push Avanti to make sure that we keep those ticket offices open, and therefore perhaps do something about staff morale and train reliability?

We could have quite a session on the changes in ticket buying patterns in recent years. The number of people buying tickets at a ticket office has declined dramatically, and we are keen that staff should be deployed as much in helping passengers outside on the concourse as in sitting behind a glass screen waiting to sell a ticket.

As for the overall services, the hon. Gentleman corresponds with me regularly, I am afraid, about the issues that affect his constituents. We have made it clear that the current performance is not acceptable. We recognise that individual staff members work hard and deliver a good service, but overall the standard is not what we expect, and we expect significant improvement, particularly in the December improvement plan, which we will monitor closely.

In the past year, daily flights from Ynys Môn to Cardiff have been scrapped by the Welsh Government, and on Friday came the appalling shock that they will close one of the two bridges—the Menai bridge—for up to four months. On top of that, we have a rail service that limps along with just one direct service to and from London. What assurance has the Minister been given by Avanti that at least one of Ynys Môn’s transport links will be fully functional by the end of the year?

I know that my hon. Friend is strongly committed to restoring the connections which her constituents have a right to expect. Certainly, the December plan includes the restoration of the majority of the services to Holyhead. As I have touched on in a number of my answers, there is daily engagement between the Department and Avanti, including at a more senior level, not just to study what is happening currently but to reassure ourselves about the plans going forward. We expect those to be in place by the end of the year. We have made it clear that we will then look at what happens after the plan has been implemented, and that will form the basis of the decisions that we make long term.

Across the west midlands and in Coventry, commuters face continued travel disruption due to the failures of Avanti West Coast. That has had a huge economic impact on my constituents in Coventry North West. There have been absolutely no consequences for the appalling service that Avanti has delivered to my constituents, so while the current Government may well continue to operate without accountability, will the Minister tell me when he will stop rewarding failure and stop wasting taxpayers’ money, and do the right thing by putting power back into the hands of passengers?

I have pointed out a couple of times that performance payments for the period since the cessation of rest-day working and the reduction in the timetable will be evaluated independently. To my knowledge, no such payments have been made so far, but we will wait for the result for the independent evaluation, which is specified under the franchise contracts. As has been touched on, simply changing the branding of the train or the name of the operator will not resolve many of the issues, but we are relatively confident that the plan that will be set out by Avanti in December will deliver. Of course, we will hold Avanti to account on that plan.

Many of my constituents in Dudley South have been let down badly by the inability of Avanti West Coast to operate an acceptable level of service. How many more chances will Avanti have before its faces the consequences of its failings?

As I have touched on, we have made it clear that we will follow due process. We have been clear in our comments to Avanti that the six-month extension is not an indication of what our long-term view is. It is effectively a probationary period, and we expect to see significant improvements in the services on the line before April. As I have touched on, the OLR is making preparations that would be necessary if it had to step in at that point.

Does the Minister understand the depths of the rage of commuters in Birmingham and the west midlands that a company that is incapable of running a train service has just been rewarded with a six-month extension? Surely he can see that Avanti, having treated the public like fools, is now treating him like a fool, because all that it is seeking to do is maximise its profit for the next six months before the inevitable happens and the contract folds. He should get a grip and end this chaos now.

First, I am always pleased to note that the vast majority of commuters in Birmingham, Coventry and the west midlands have the benefit of Mayor Andy Street pushing their transport services forward, and we are delighted to work with him to ensure quality. As for Avanti, we have engaged directly with Mayor Street, because we want to see improvements and we want the service to change. We will have a plan to do so in December.

In addition to the severe disruption and overcrowding of services through Stoke-on-Trent, commitments to improve stations have not been fulfilled. Will my hon. Friend look at what more can be done to ensure that those contractual obligations to improve stations such as Stoke-on-Trent are fulfilled by Avanti?

Certainly we are keen that Avanti should honour all its contractual obligations. The one on which we are most focused is ensuring that it improves the operation of the railway but, similarly, we would want to consider the other commitments that it made—the progress that has been made on them and how it is honouring them—as part of the longer-term decision.

I probably spend more time on the Avanti west coast main line than anyone in the Chamber. Its performance is simply appalling, and the Minister saying that it must improve is like me turning to my son and daughter and saying, “Don’t eat anything from the biscuit tin again”, then walking away and leaving the biscuit tin in front of them. The reality is that under the Avanti franchise, staff morale has been driven into the ground. The company has engaged in horrendous industrial relations with the trade unions, and it is running the service into the ground in the full expectation that it will lose it in six months’ time. Why does the Minister not just do the right thing, take the contract from Avanti, and follow the example of the Scottish Government and bring it back into public ownership?

My discussions with FirstGroup and Avanti, and particularly with FirstGroup, do not indicate that it is inevitable that they will lose the service in six months’ time, or that that is an outcome for which they hope and wish. Every day, the Department engages with Avanti on the December improvement plan and bringing in more train drivers. Again, that brings home the fact that we need to reform our railways to move away from the idea that services depend on rest-day working, which belongs to the services of the past.

The situation with Avanti has been intolerable for many months. Not only has that caused significant problems for commuters but it has damaged the tourism industry in my constituency, as holidaymakers are reluctant to book ahead. What reassurances can the Minister give the House that he is holding Avanti to account on its recovery plan?

As I have said, departmental officials engage with Avanti on its recovery plan, as I touched on in an answer to a previous question: it is about not just accepting its assurance but going into the details of what the plan is. Every week, there is engagement at senior management level. Ministers are engaged through departmental teams with the progress that has been made on reassurance. As I have said, at the moment we are confident that Avanti can deliver its plan in December —there is a requirement for trade union co-operation as well, which we accept is slightly out of its control—and that is our key focus in ensuring that we manage this every day, as we are conscious that significant improvement is needed.

It is no accident that Avanti has reached the pinnacle of incompetence within the rail industry. It has done that by cutting costs and putting profit before service and people. It has damaged the economy all the way along the west coast main line. People who use that line do not want it to continue. I do not want it to continue. Why is the Minister giving this dreadful company a second chance?

As I have already said, we are clear that the six-month extension is to give Avanti the final opportunity to implement the improvement plans that it has put in place, which we are starting to see the benefits of—we are starting to see drivers coming through—and that will then allow us to take a final decision in the early part of next year about what happens. Alongside all that, we are already doing the relevant preparations in the OLR.

The Avanti service between Stockport and London Euston is unacceptable and has been for some time. I am grateful to the Minister for his words on this, but cancellations and the inability to book a return ticket mean that people are not travelling on the train; they are choosing to get in the car instead. Will the Minister take to Avanti the clear message that it must improve and improve quickly or its contract will be in jeopardy?

My hon. Friend puts her points very well. We have been clear that improvements need to be made for this contract to continue beyond April.

Yorkshire continues to be blighted by unreliable services, but it was very good to see Mayor Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire telling TransPennine Express to come up with an immediate solution to the chaos that has left so many passengers deeply exasperated. One thing the Department could do is to make sure that negotiations on rest-day working are meaningful and deliver an agreement with the trade unions. Rest-day working, as the Minister will know, is separate from terms and conditions, and an agreement would make an almost overnight difference. The Secretary of State has indicated that she is open to an agreement. Can the Minister update us on what progress is being made?

Again, it is worth noting that, in the case of Avanti—I shall talk specifically about Avanti as it is the subject of today’s urgent question—agreement on rest-day working with the trade unions had been in place for some period of time, and that it suddenly ceased in those volunteering to undertake it. This is not a case of there not being an agreement. For example, if people started volunteering for rest-day working tomorrow, they could pick it up and do it again. That said, is it sensible to be having large parts of a key train line relying on rest-day working? The obvious answer is no, which is why we want to look at wider modernisation—we may have some difference of opinion on that, but it is a key point—and on how additional drivers are being trained so that the December recovery plan for Avanti does not rely on driver rest-day working.

One of the biggest problems on the north Wales coast line is that when Avanti stopped its services, my constituents had to put up with Welsh Labour’s Transport for Wales service instead, which is just as unreliable. It is so overcrowded that it looks a bit like the tube at rush hour. With a little bit of sympathy for Avanti’s situation, I have been trying to schedule my own train travel recently, and it is just as difficult to get a train because of strike action going on as because of the problems with getting tickets. Does the Minister agree that the hardest part for the public is uncertainty and cancellations? Would it not be better for Avanti to run fewer services well, especially down the north Wales coast line, rather than making promises that it just cannot keep?

The hon. Member is right to suggest that this idea of a publicly owned transport service being some sort of panacea of great customer service is rather false. It is interesting to hear the examples that he highlights of the service offered by the Welsh Government, which his own constituents get to experience. On the balance between reliability and the number of services being run, the reduced timetable was put in place partly to ensure that services would run. That said, the service is clearly not at the level that we would wish. That is why more than 100 drivers will have been trained between April and November, which is when we look to bring back the main timetable. Ultimately, it is for Avanti to deliver the services that it is contracted to provide.

The west coast Avanti line has been dysfunctional for many months. The Minister is saying that we need to give Avanti the opportunity. Let me give him some recent examples. Today, 44 services have been cancelled on the TransPennine route. On Thursday, if people tried to purchase a ticket online, they could not. No tickets were available until 9.10 in the evening. If someone is travelling back to Lancashire, that is a long time to hang about in London and it gets them home very late. The Minister says that we have seen improvements, but we have not. He says that he will give Avanti another six months. Are we really saying that people in Lancashire have to wait six months for an improvement that is unlikely to come, while the Minister decides to continue to reward bad service?

I make the point that the TransPennnine Express is a separate franchise from Avanti, although FirstGroup is the overall operator. We are starting to see the reinstatement of some services as new drivers are being trained, but we are clear that the overall service is unacceptable and needs to improve. The idea that just sticking it into the OLR tomorrow morning will suddenly resolve all the problems is not practical, but we are very clear that if we do not see the significant improvements that we need to see post the December improvement plan being implemented, we will need to take a careful view of the long-term future of the franchise.

Residents of Aberconwy know only too well the importance of the services that run on the north Wales main line. Indeed, the UK connectivity review reflected the strategic importance of that infrastructure, but, unfortunately, the Avanti emergency timetable does not seem to recognise that; it barely delivers a main line service. Effectively giving north Wales branch line status is causing real problems. Recently, I caught a Crewe to Chester connection. It was a single carriage that only left the station when six people had crammed into the toilet and it still left people behind on the platform. Will the Minister confirm that, in any future considerations of the franchise, it will bear the name the north Wales and west coast main line to reflect the strategic importance of north Wales to the rail service?

From my own time in the Wales Office, I am conscious of the vital economic role that the railway plays in north Wales in terms of economic performance. As my hon. Friend says, the current service is not acceptable. We look forward in December to seeing the restoration of the majority of direct services. I hope that he will appreciate why I am not going to commit to a rebranding exercise on the Floor of the House this afternoon, but I am sure many colleagues will have a view as to whether the current name that the line operates under is the best compared with some of the other names that could have been chosen, particularly the old LMS one.

Why does this Minister insist on defending the indefensible? Avanti failing is nothing new. It has failed virtually since day one when it took over the contract from Virgin. The Minister says that it has daily meetings and his officials have meetings frequently with Avanti. Has he pushed Avanti on the fact that, for too many weekends and days of the week, my constituents cannot book advance tickets online? Has he pushed it on the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, a journey on the west coast main line between Stockport and Euston is far more expensive than the same journey on the east coast main line between Wakefield and King’s Cross? He talks about performance-related payments to Avanti. If he cannot get a grip on Avanti, do we need performance-related payments on the Minister?

It is always good to get constructive suggestions as to how we improve train services. On the service, I think I have said “unacceptable” more times at the Dispatch Box on this subject than on pretty much anything else. No one is arguing that the current service is acceptable as we go forward. However, simply chucking it into the OLR and giving it a new brand to resolve every problem is not a solution on its own. That is why we have engaged and worked with Avanti on the December improvement plan. We expect it to deliver and if it does not, clearly, there will be consequences when we come to the April contract extension decision.

The Minister says that he has given Avanti a six-month contract extension to allow it to deliver its improvement plan. What assurance can he give the House and commuters that services will not deteriorate again to their current, unacceptable levels if the Avanti contract is extended beyond then?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that. As part of taking a longer-term decision, we would want to see how the improvement was sustainable—for example, as I have touched on already, by moving away from a reliance on rest-day working for train drivers as the core of delivering the service. We want to look—in the same way, by the way, that the OLR would have to look if it took over operations—at ensuring that any improvement is sustainable and provides a long-term basis of confidence for the service and particularly the communities that rely on it.

Does the Minister not understand that the public believe the Government, by extending the Avanti franchise, are taking them for fools? Does he not realise that the only way out of this for him and his ministerial colleagues, and the only way to end the public’s anger towards their Government, is to remove the Avanti franchise and do it now?

I have to say, that was not the universal reaction to the decision we took, when we were clear that this was a six-month probationary period. We look forward to seeing the implementation of the December timetable changes and the improvement plan, and to closely monitoring the progress being made towards it, including, for example, the training of new drivers to fulfil it. As I have said a number of times, simply repainting the engine and giving the franchise a different name will not solve many of these issues.

It currently costs £369.40 for a standard open return between Manchester and London. That would be excessive at the best of times. When the company is completely incapable of running a reliable service, it is downright unacceptable. The Minister has said repeatedly that there are already signs of improvement. That is not the experience of Avanti passengers. Can he describe exactly what signs of improvements he is talking about?

We have already begun to see the restoration of some peak-time services. It is also worth saying that very few people use the open return-price ticket—I certainly did not use it when I travelled down from Manchester on Sunday, and nor would many other travellers. We are starting to see improvements. We are seeing the profile of new drivers joining the service. Drivers already in training will be able to start driving trains before the December improvement plan is in place. However, we are clear that this is a probationary period and we look forward to seeing the outcomes.

I and my constituents know only too well that the Avanti West Coast line is the worst performing on the rail network, although the workers do a great job and should be commended. My great city of Liverpool will be hosting the Eurovision song contest in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency next year. We need an efficient and effective service to get people to the city and support the local economy. Does the Minister agree that, instead of rewarding failure, it is time to terminate the contract and bring the service back in house?

We are all looking forward to the delivery of a successful Eurovision in Liverpool, or Lviv-erpool, as some people are deciding to call it—[Interruption]—although I understand that there is some disappointment from colleagues who were hoping that Glasgow would be the venue. Certainly, the rail network will need to play a key part in making sure that we can support that event fully.

As I have touched on a couple of times, just stripping Avanti of the contract today would not be a magic bullet to solve the problems we are seeing. Avanti has its improvement plan for December, we are working closely to monitor progress on it, and we are clear that we expect to see significant and sustainable improvements following that plan, ahead of taking a final decision in April.

People in Birmingham are absolutely sick to the back teeth of Avanti West Coast—its cancelled trains and overcrowded carriages, the cuts to services and the lack of ticket availability. It is absolutely ridiculous that its contract was extended. If we are serious about levelling up and improving services, we need to have plans in place to end this chaos. So Minister, do you think that—

Madam Deputy Speaker, does the Minister think that rewarding Avanti with a contract extension was a mistake?

I do not believe it is a mistake to focus on an improvement plan that will come in in December and to carefully monitor progress. As I have said, DFT officials engage daily with Avanti on the progress it is making. We are not just accepting assurances; we want to see clear, concrete evidence—for example, drivers in training and drivers completing training are the core part of resolving some of these issues. That is where we believe our focus should be now. We will clearly look to see how the improvements are made in December. If they are not, and if the service is still as it is, clearly we will take a decision ahead of the main contract renewal in April. I also understand that Avanti accepts that the current service is not appropriate.

While we are talking about Birmingham, we should remember that this does not reflect on the whole rail network, as the hon. Lady knows. Chiltern runs a very effective service to Birmingham Moor Street, which provides a good option for many people looking to travel to London from Birmingham, and it has operated it successfully for many years.

My constituents in south Manchester are contacting me, frustrated and angry about Avanti’s lack of service. They cannot book seats, and even if they can, the trains are ridiculously overcrowded or cancelled completely. The Minister is setting great store by this so-called December improvement plan, but how can we have any confidence in that plan, given the current terrible service, which by the way is actually getting worse? Avanti should have lost the contract already, but if we do not see massive and fast improvements in December, will he please commit to stepping in quickly, and long before April, to sort out this shambles?

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, we are constantly monitoring the performance. As for removing the franchise, we clearly have to go through a due process, as I am sure he would accept it. We believe that there is a credible plan for improvements in December. We are starting to see evidence of new train drivers actually qualifying, and we are seeing more in training. The December improvement plan has been launched without, for example, relying on driver rest-day working, the withdrawal of which has been the absolute core of the problems affecting Avanti trains. Certainly, we will continue to engage closely with Avanti beyond the implementation in December, and the company knows full well what is at stake ahead of the main contract renewal in April if the services do not significantly improve. In the meantime, we are being clear with Avanti that issues such as the availability of online ticketing also need to improve. Weekday availability has improved significantly, but I accept that we now need to see the same for weekends.

Avanti is having a huge effect on the economy of Birmingham and the region, because of the huge inward investments that Birmingham is drawing in from HSBC and other financial institutions, and because of the region making other investments—without the support of Andy Street, the Mayor. They are doing a fantastic job. We need to support the workers and the travelling public, who are having to suffer. For example, I could not change my ticket down to London and had to wait until the train came; I was told to do it on the train, because they could not guarantee the service arriving. That is not an effective way to manage the service. We should not be looking to extend the contract to April. The Minister should now put the contract into abeyance, and by December we should be training more people to get a new contract in place and have the service running properly for Birmingham and the west midlands.

The question is that the Minister should not have agreed this six-month extension, but should start working on it now, and by December—

Will the Minister put in place a programme now so that we can take charge of Avanti trains by December?

As I have touched on already, we do not believe that simply popping this into the OLR and changing the paintwork on the trains, as if that is a magic solution, will be an effective way forward. We believe that tackling the underlying issues, such as ensuring that there are an adequate number of train drivers to operate the service without using rest day working for drivers, is at the core of a successful operation, either under the current franchise or potentially under the OLR in future. We are clear that we will expect to see significant improvements following implementation of the plan put forward by Avanti in taking a long-term contract decision.

I am always pleased to hear of the investment being secured for Birmingham, particularly by Mayor Andy Street. Of course, one of the biggest drivers of investment in Birmingham now—this is one thing that there probably will be some agreement on—is Birmingham Curzon Street. That is being built and will be the main terminus for HS2, which has enjoyed cross-party support, and it is starting to drive investment in Birmingham, and we very much welcome it.

I am pleased to be able to speak to the Minister about this. We were due to meet yesterday, but unfortunately he cancelled at short notice, leaving me with a feeling not dissimilar to that of Avanti West Coast passengers. I have no criticism of him for that, because he had important business in the House. I hope we are able to meet soon, because I have been trying to meet him and his many, many predecessors for the last six months to discuss this issue. The state of direct services between Chester and London is appalling. We were promised improvements by Avanti, but the services have actually gone backwards. Having seen how Avanti has failed to deliver on its promises so far, I have no confidence that it will be able to pull this off in time for the renewal of the franchise. Does the Minister have confidence in Avanti?

It is worth pointing out what I was doing yesterday afternoon: I was in the Chamber answering an urgent question. Urgent questions seem to be a bit like buses; you wait a while for one, and then two come along fairly close together.

We have scrutinised carefully what Avanti is doing with its improvement plan for December. As I have said a number of times, we are not just going to accept assurances that it will work. DFT officials are engaging daily—weekly at more senior levels—to ensure that the company is hitting the milestones it needs to for this improvement plan. We all want to see the line operate and move forward successfully. However, we have been clear that if it does not, and if by April the improvements have not happened and been sustained, we will follow the due process, but that may well have a strong impact on the long-term decision.

Extending Avanti’s contract by six months was the wrong thing to do. The travelling public have had enough of this company running their train service into the ground. Liverpool is a visitor economy. I represent both the city’s football clubs, and it is time for us to have a decent working service. That will also rely on Avanti staff. Avanti’s tactics of smearing its own workforce and making them a scapegoat for its mismanagement mean that it will not recover this service while doing that. What is the Minister doing to improve industrial relations between the workforce and the company, and will he consider acting today, not waiting months more?

We are already acting; there is daily engagement with Avanti on how it is progressing towards its improvement plan. As I have made clear, we are not just accepting assurances that it will make improvements in December, but looking for clear evidence that it is meeting the milestones to do just that. We are keen that there should be good relationships between employers and their employees in the sector. For all the problems that are well known about, rail sector management and employees worked closely together for the state funeral and the events following the death of Her late Majesty, with many going the extra mile and working into the early hours of the morning to ensure that people could attend the events and get home afterwards. Despite the idea that there are problems in particular parts, there was a real team effort for that event across the rail sector. We are engaging actively, and we look forward to seeing the improvements that the December plan will bring; if not, consequences will follow.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Why does the Minister insist on rewarding private sector failure—Avanti or TransPennine Express—with more public money, while refusing to invest in transformative public transport services such as Northern Powerhouse Rail? Does he think that my constituents, deprived of an affordable or reliable means of getting to work, are pleased to know that their hard-worked-for taxes are being used by this Government literally to pay the private sector to profit from their misery?

I have covered a number of times the position on performance payments in the Avanti contract. The hon. Lady’s constituents will have seen the clear commitment we have made to investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail over the last few months. They will have seen the start of work on the trans-Pennine upgrade. They will have seen the integrated rail plan, and they will see the first new main line to be built in this country along the spine of it since the Victorian era, already moving from London to Birmingham and then on to Manchester after that. I think they will be slightly more impressed by that than whatever they can see from 13 years of investment under Labour.

Bill Presented

Ministerial and Other Pensions and Salaries (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

David Linden, supported by Drew Hendry, Gavin Newlands, Brendan O’Hara and Alan Brown, presented a Bill to provide that a person who ceases to hold a ministerial office is entitled to a grant only after holding the relevant office for two years or more; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 November, and to be printed (Bill 172).