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Avanti West Coast

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, the Statement is as follows:

“The current west coast partnership franchise agreement is due to expire on 16 October 2022. As with all contract awards, the Government will act in accordance with the Railways Act Section 26(1) franchising policy statement, and a decision has yet to be taken by the Secretary of State. Given the market and the commercially sensitive nature of the outcome, further information cannot be provided at this time.

Like all operators, Avanti has used a degree of rest-day working to operate its timetable. In essence, this means that drivers have been volunteering to work additional shifts over and above their contracted hours. The industry arrangement has been in place for numerous years, to the benefit of the drivers, the operators and, of course, the passengers. Avanti has a live rest-day working agreement that remains in place with the ASLEF union, which represents about 95% of its drivers.

However, on 30 July 2022, Avanti experienced an unprecedented, immediate and near total cessation of drivers volunteering to work passenger trains on their rest days. This left Avanti unable to resource its timetable and, in the immediate term, resulted in significant short-notice cancellations. Avanti has reduced its timetable in response to the withdrawal of rest-day working. Reducing the timetable provided better certainty and reliability for passengers as it reduced the number of short-notice cancellations.

The department continues to work closely with Avanti to monitor performance, while Avanti continues to review demand data and the position regarding train crew availability to inform options to reliably increase services. An increase in services between Manchester and London remains a priority and Avanti will continue to look for opportunities to support passengers and businesses along the route.”

My Lords, listening to the Answer, I am even more puzzled that the Department for Transport has awarded Avanti a £4 million bonus for operational performance, customer satisfaction and acting as a good and efficient operator.

When this issue was last raised, on 4 July, the Minister conceded that Avanti’s management of the west coast main line was terrible. Since then, ticket sales have been suspended, timetables have been cut, and now only 53% of trains are arriving on time. I am sure she can hear the frustration of the travelling public. Can she explain why the Government are not doing something immediately to end this shambles and outrage on one of our country’s major lines?

I absolutely agree that there is considerable passenger outrage, and rightly so, but this is not an issue that can be solved quickly. It is a twofold problem. On the first level, there is a backlog of training due to Covid. Training simply had to stop during that time. To train a train driver takes two years, and rightly so, because it is a safety-critical environment; we need to make sure that our train drivers drive our trains safely. However, that means that there is a backlog in training which will take a while to resolve. With the slightly reduced number of services, that could be coped with. As I said in the Answer, this problem stems from the unprecedented, immediate and near-total cessation of drivers volunteering for rest-day working. Do I think that operators should need to rely on rest-day working? No, I do not. We should run a modern, seven-day railway, and I hope that the unions will agree.

My Lords, only last week, funding for Transport for London was made dependent on it continuing to work to introduce driverless trains, so the Government are clearly content to make funding dependent on action. What conditions were imposed on Avanti and other train operators in relation to maintaining frequency of services? Is Avanti in contravention of that agreement? As the Government’s response makes clear, reliance on rest-day working is the norm across all operators. Clearly, this is no longer viable.

The Government are now directly in charge of all this. Let us hope that the new Secretary of State will agree to meet the unions and get involved, because the Government are directly responsible. Can the Minister tell us what initiatives and targets the Government are setting to ensure that all train operators recruit and train more drivers? In particular, what are they doing to increase the percentage of female drivers? Across the rail industry, the number of women train drivers is still far too low. There is absolutely no reason why a woman cannot drive a train.

My goodness, on that last point, I completely agree with the noble Baroness, although I have had a go in a simulator and was not very good at it.

I agree that recruitment of train drivers is essential. The average age of a train driver is 51. The average retirement age of a train driver is 59. We must get some youngsters and a more diverse group of people into driving trains, because that is the future of a modern railway service that operates purely and solely for the benefit of passengers and freight, which we are very much focused on.

Turning to how we hold the train operating companies to account, I am sure that all noble Lords will have read the ERMAs, which are published. In those agreements are the criteria that we set out for the train operating companies to meet various standards in order for them to receive any performance fees. The noble Lord mentioned a performance fee of some £4 million. That relates to a period donkey’s years ago, way before the period that we are talking about. For example, in the period from September 2020 to March 2021, Avanti received no fee at all for customer experience.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, since I was elected in Penrith in 1983, I calculate I have done the Penrith-London journey, to and fro, at least 2,600 times? Is she aware that I thought British Rail was atrocious, Virgin was a magnificent breath of fresh air and Avanti, I can honestly say, is 10 times worse than British Rail on a bad day? It has cut the trains in half. You cannot book until a few days in advance, and then it is at an exorbitant price with no cheap tickets. When you do book, your seats are double-booked, because bookings are cancelled overnight. Food is often not served. The only thing that works well is disabled assistance, the “cripple buggy” and the people in Penrith who help me out. That works remarkably well. So, now that my right honourable friend the incompetent Mr Grant Shapps has gone, will she ask my right honourable friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan to remove this franchise immediately and give it back to Virgin, which ran a ruddy good railway line?

Well, I am pleased that my noble friend is pleased with the disabled service, which has received a huge amount of investment and insight recently. It is critical that our trains are accessible to everybody, and being able to onboard and offboard a train is a key element to making them accessible. I hear what he says about the service to Penrith, of which he is a frequent user. We all want it to be better, but we have to play on the pitch we have got. In this situation, if there are not enough train drivers to drive the trains, we cannot have the services. We are holding Avanti to account in looking at its plans to recruit more train drivers, and of course we are looking at its performance. No decision has been taken about whether Avanti has a role to play in the future of Britain’s railways. That will be taken by the new Secretary of State. All options remain on the table and evidence is being gathered as we speak.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular user of the Avanti service from Holyhead to Euston—or at least I used to be. There is now only one through train a day, leaving Holyhead at about six o’clock in the morning. The reason given, as the Minister said, is the shortage of drivers. It is clearly not possible for Avanti to solve that problem, because it has gone on for month after month, so what are the Government going to do about it?

I absolutely hear the noble Lord’s concerns about north Wales. I understand it has been particularly hit by the reduction in services by Avanti. In looking at where Avanti came from and is going, we should remember that it had the contract for only 16 weeks before Covid turned up. It started with a timetable of four trains an hour. It got up to seven and was heading towards eight, and then we hit this slight buffer. In this situation, we are keen to restore proper services to north Wales. There are also things we need to do at Chester and the Manchester-London route is an absolute priority to make sure that people can travel. We are looking at all of these in collaboration with Avanti but, as I have said, without train drivers willing to drive the trains, as they were previously, we are slightly shackled.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister says about the lack of train drivers. Clearly, that is a problem. I travel on the same service as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra; I get on a stop earlier at Carlisle. Can I ask the noble Baroness, when she is talking to the Secretary of State about this contract, to point out that lack of train drivers does not cause lack of catering? Lack of train drivers does not cause passengers to be locked into Oxenholme station because a train has got there so late and nobody was told to leave the doors open, so people have to climb over fences. Lack of train drivers does not mean seats are double-booked. It was absolute chaos on Monday. Lack of drivers does not mean that staff have no information to give passengers, who do not know what on earth is going on and who are lucky if they can find a member of staff. Why is the Glasgow train always late getting into Carlisle? It is not even very far, once you have a train driver. By the time you get to London, delay repay is the norm. Will the Minister take these concerns back? This is not about just train strikes and train drivers.

I am as horrified as the noble Baroness is at the stories she recounts about the services that are currently being offered to her part of the north of England. It is unacceptable. We are working very hard, and officials and Ministers speak to Avanti, as they do with all train operating companies, to discuss its performance. We are looking at this. I have heard everything the noble Baroness said and I reassure her that I will take it back to the department.

House adjourned at 7.50 pm.