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West Coast Main Line

Volume 821: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to replace Avanti Trains as the principal operator on the West Coast Main Line.

My Lords, the department is currently in discussions with Avanti West Coast, as per the prior information notice first issued in October 2020, about a subsequent direct award. A decision will be made later in the year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not-too-helpful response. Does she regret the replacement of Virgin Trains by this particular organisation? Does she agree with me that the problem of national rail contracts is that, under the present system, they are, in effect, cost-plus contracts? There is no incentive on train operating companies either to run trains or to provide a decent service, something this particular company has taken advantage of. Will she send Avanti a short message—how about, “Arrivederci”?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that. I also am aware that he has written to Avanti West Coast citing his concerns. It has no record of any correspondence from him; however, the managing director is very happy to speak to the noble Lord—perhaps he can say that Italian word at that meeting. It is the case that both for the ERMAs and the national rail contracts, there are very firm incentivisation elements. For example, Avanti earns a fee based on performance and, for the six months to March 2021, it was judged as getting a score of one for customer experience—that is the lowest, not the highest. Therefore, because it got the lowest, it got no fee for that element. So there is incentivisation, and we hope to make it better because we want to see excellent customer service across our railways.

My Lords, I shall ask the Minister a straight question. If she came to this Chamber 17 minutes late to answer these questions, how does she think the House would feel? If she was summoned again at 9 pm with a Statement from the other place and she was 38 minutes late, does she think that we would be impressed with that performance? Those were the train delays on my journey from Stockport to London on the Thursday before we broke for Easter. That is by no means a one-off—the timetable is fantasy island. The morale of staff is at an all-time low. Until last week, they were wearing Virgin uniforms—three years on—with the badge cut off. The morale of staff is down, the service to customers is poor and I see no reason for carrying on with this franchise.

My Lords, had I turned up late to the Dispatch Box, obviously I might have had to resign—but not today. It should be remembered that we understand that there have been various issues relating to services. We work extremely closely with all the train operating companies, as the customers come back to the railways, to make sure that they run on time. There has been an issue around cancellations regarding staff-related absence, but we are working through that and things are improving. Of course, part of having these contracts in place means that we will be able to get better service for customers.

My Lords, I have heard the same stories as my noble friend about the pretty appalling customer service from Avanti, and I reflect on the fact that the present structure seems to require the Treasury to micromanage everything—even if Network Rail wants to paint the railings on a station, it has to get Treasury approval. This is probably not a very efficient way of working. Can the Minister assure the House that, when we hear details of the Great British Railways, which is going to save us all from appalling services, that will be taken into account and somehow there will be some delegation and authority for the railways to run on their own with incentives and not too much bureaucracy?

I absolutely agree with what the noble Lord has just said. Of course, the Great British Railways transition team is already focused on delivering improved services for customers and driving revenue recovery. At the moment we know that passenger demand is about two-thirds of what it was pre-pandemic. It is looking very closely at boosting strategic freight again which is really important and developing this whole 30-year vision for how we want our railways to operate in the longer term.

If my noble friend had time during the period of the Prorogation, perhaps she could think of undertaking a journey, heavily disguised, on this unfortunate and benighted railway and reporting her experiences to the House when we resume.

I am always very happy to take the train. When I take my local train, I am actually always pleased with the service, although I look around and see that there are not as many passengers on it as I would like to see. I think that is one of the biggest challenges we face. We have the railway infrastructure and operating companies which have historically been operating at much higher passenger levels and we have to look at how we are going to adjust the railway in the future, maintaining excellent customer service but also good value for money for the taxpayer.

Will the Minister acknowledge the great importance to the Welsh economy of the Holyhead to London Euston route, acknowledging that there are not many highly skilled or well-paid jobs in north-west Wales? Can the Minister indicate when the pre-Covid rate of service might be reconstituted, particularly the hourly service that existed from Chester to Euston which has been much emaciated? Can she help?

I do not think that I would be able to stand here and commit to every single service coming in the same form as it was pre-pandemic, because life has changed and the reasons why people are travelling by rail have also changed. Avanti West Coast started off with four trains per hour plus extra peak trains. Back in February, that went up to six trains per hour—on 28 February—and then as we approach the summer timetable which comes in in May, we will be up to seven trains per hour and eight on key hours. That will improve the service to Chester and, I hope, to north Wales.

My Lords, it is always easy to complain and make comments, but yesterday I was on an Avanti train from Euston to Liverpool, where my mother was having an operation. I waited until she was conscious and therefore I missed my train, which I had booked at 2.47 pm. I would like the Minister to agree with me and call out the train manager at Liverpool Lime Street on the 3.47 pm Avanti train. When I explained my situation, that I had missed my train, he said, “Don’t you worry whatsoever. Go and sit down.” It was great customer service, and I would like to call that out.

My Lords, can we go into this Avanti contract a little more? Modern Railways magazine, which tends to be an authoritative magazine in the industry, says that Avanti will be taking over the service on a national rail contract on 16 October. Can the Minister confirm that that is true? When does she expect to actually conclude the contract with Avanti? Can she explain what revenue risk, if any, Avanti will be taking? Will she perhaps illustrate what other risk Avanti will be responsible for? The key question, I think, given that there is not going to be a competitive process, is: how do we know we are getting value for money?

Avanti already has an emergency recovery measures agreement, which was awarded to First Trenitalia, which is Avanti, in August 2019. That was initially for seven years, so the national rail contract we are currently negotiating with Avanti will replace that. It will start on 16 October if negotiations reach an appropriate point. We will not award the contract if it is not right to award the contract, because, of course, there are alternatives. As for the revenue risks, obviously these contracts operate as all rail contracts do, whereby the Government take on the revenue and the costs; however, the train operating companies do annual business planning every year, which has to be agreed with the department. On that basis, within that, there are various performance measures that have to be met, and that is how we are able to control the railway and ensure companies are delivering value for money.

My Lords, I use the Avanti West Coast every week and, frankly, the customer service is pretty good. It has introduced standard premium, which is a vast improvement, with at-seat ordering, et cetera—I think it is pretty good. But can the Minister tell me about what is laughably called TransPennine Express, which has been on strike for weeks now every Sunday? What are the Government doing to bring the strike to an end?

Yes, I am aware that the TransPennine Express is subject to some industrial action. Of course, we are working very closely with the train operating companies, and we hope to bring that strike to a resolution as soon as possible.