Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 25 October.
“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.”
A cursory look at the coverage in local and regional newspapers across the north-west and West Midlands will tell you that there is seething frustration about Avanti’s ongoing failures and their impact on the travelling public. It also impacts those living in London and rest of the south-east looking to travel to some of our other great cities for work and pleasure. This is therefore a matter of national concern and I hope the Minister will ensure it becomes a bigger priority for her new boss at the department. Will she explain what level of failure the department is waiting for before ending Avanti’s management of the service? It should surely be expected to equal or exceed the performance of the state-owned LNER.
My Lords, the Government take the performance of Avanti very seriously. We are looking at the performance metrics and working with it on its recovery plan. As noble Lords will know, any award is published in line with Section 26(1) of the Railways Act franchising policy statement. There is also an independent process to assess whether performance targets have been met. We are very focused on working with Avanti to pull it out of this period of poor performance and on to the sunlit uplands of fulfilling the needs of its passengers. From the next timetable change in December, Avanti will go from 180 daily services to 264—a massive step change. Everybody will notice the trains are back. We need to make sure that they are reliable, but I absolutely appreciate that at this current time the service is not good enough.
My Lords, Avanti has run only 40% of the services out of Euston that its predecessor ran. The Government’s Answer to this Question refers to Covid as a cause of the problem, but other operators do not seem to have had the same problem with training—GWR, for example. The truth is that bad management has undermined staff goodwill and the Government have rewarded failure in this decision. Will the Minister explain why Avanti has reduced its service but has been rewarded with the same £6 million fee? If the excuse is that it is in the contract, why are the contracts so badly written that the Government could not reduce that fee?
Secondly, it is almost impossible for the poor souls forced to travel on these trains to buy advance tickets. They have to buy on the day, and it costs more as a result. This is a con. Will the Minister intervene on this issue and ensure that the prices are adjusted appropriately if no advance tickets are available?
My Lords, there were several questions there, but I hope to get through as many as possible. There is a well-worn path which involves independent adjudication for contracting and that is utterly necessary. We do not want contracts in the whim of Ministers, because on either side of that debate, it could end up with very poor outcomes. Contracts must be assessed properly and there are legal and contractual processes to be gone through. It is absolutely true that Avanti is on probation. It has the six-month extension for a reason, and we will be watching it like a hawk. Obviously, its performance will be measured by the independent adjudicators.
What we tried to do over the summer period—as we tried in the aviation sector—was to ensure that we had reliability. If you have good communications and a robust timetable, at least people who do have a train ticket can turn up and actually get their train, which brings me to the advance ticketing issue.
I am pleased to say that it is now possible to get advance tickets on weekdays until 13 January and on weekends up to four weeks from 7 November. It is shorter at weekends, because travel is sometimes disrupted by engineering works.
I am aware that I have not covered the Covid issue, but I might come back to that in subsequent questions.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. I think the Government fully accept that at the moment the service that Avanti is offering is basically not acceptable. I am very pleased that extra pressure is being put on Avanti by the Government, but there is no quick, easy solution to this, because of the problems of driver training. I am pleased that another 100 drivers will be trained in the next few months. However, there is growing concern, not only about Avanti but about TransPennine services. Will my noble friend relay to the Secretary of State the very deep concern across the whole House and across the north about the poor service which they are currently getting?
I will certainly relay that concern to the new Secretary of State. I am very grateful to my noble friend for raising TransPennine Express, because that is a very similar situation. It goes back to Covid, the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, was trying to get me on to. TransPennine Express is having the same issues as Avanti—actually, it is slightly earlier in its journey, so at least the Government will have had experience with Avanti when trying to get TransPennine Express through. It has had higher than average sickness among train crew, high levels of drivers leaving and reduced training. It has also had the loss of driver rest-day working because ASLEF decided not to extend or renew the rest-day working agreement that has expired. There is a theme here. The Government will work with Avanti and TransPennine Express. I encourage all noble Lords on the other side of the House to work with the unions to reach an agreement on getting these services up and running.
Will the Minister accept that her responses stretch credulity, to say the least? As recently as July this year, in response to a Question from me, she acknowledged that Avanti’s performance was “terrible”. Since then, it has had a contract extension and, for no accountable reason, a £4 million bonus for customer service. Is she aware of the misery that regular travellers on the west coast main line have to put up with daily from this incompetent outfit? What will it take for the Government to do their job and relieve Avanti of any responsibility for being involved in our railway system ever again?
I am pretty sure that Avanti has not received a performance bonus of £4 million for providing services in the current period—if I am wrong, I will of course correct the record. I should like to be a bit pragmatic about all this, because we have to look at the alternative. The alternative would be to send in OLR—obviously there would be legal and contractual processes to go through—but what would OLR do? It does not have train drivers up its sleeve. The issues are the lack of train drivers and the rest-day working agreement not being adhered to, and those issues would remain. We understand what the problems are. We are getting the drivers trained and into the trains, and services are going from 180 to 164. I hope that the next time I speak to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, he will be at least a little more content than he is now, because I do want to make him happy. We all want Avanti to succeed.
I declare an interest as one of the seething passengers: my train from Crewe this morning took one and a half hours longer than it should have. Can the noble Baroness say whether the independent adjudicator will take evidence from individual passengers, because I would be very happy to send some to it? Your Lordships’ finance department knows very well the number of delay repays that have gone back to my travelcard because of the delays on Avanti trains over the last six months. If Italian state railways can work on time, why cannot ours?
I suggest that we convene a meeting with the Rail Minister—I am not the Rail Minister—which may be a better idea than shouting at an adjudicator. Perhaps noble Lords could join me in that meeting. We can discuss Avanti and TPE, and we might be able to touch on reform and how we are going to take the railways forward. I am very happy to sort that out; perhaps a bit of face-to-face discussion with the Minister would be appreciated.
I cannot give a guarantee on the first question, because Avanti is on probation, as I said. Let us be clear: there is a recovery plan, which has been reviewed by the ORR and Network Rail’s programme management office. It could be that that recovery plan comes into place and, in a few months’ time, everybody is content with the performance, so I shall say no more than that. On the legislation for Great British Railways, we are working as hard as we can to find parliamentary time for it, and in the meantime are doing everything that does not need legislation—important elements that will take us towards a modern, seven-day railway.