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Avanti Trains

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they next expect to meet Avanti Trains to discuss payments made to the company under the service quality regime.

My Lords, officials regularly meet Avanti to discuss its performance against service quality regime targets and how it will make improvements for passengers and to the customer experience. To date, no payments have been made to Avanti under the service quality regime. The evaluation to determine the first service quality regime performance fee for April to October 2023 is currently under way.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, at a recent internal meeting at Avanti trains, various slides were produced for its management? I have some of them with me at the moment and I shall quote from them. Managers joked about receiving “free money” from the Government and performance-related payments being

“too good to be true”.

The presentation went on to say that the Department for Transport supports the firm and added:

“And here’s the fantastic thing!—if we achieve those figures”—

that is, the Government’s punctuality figures—

“they pay us some more money—which is ours to keep—in the form of a performance-based fee!!”

Does the Minister accept that this is a situation where the Treasury takes the revenue, the passengers take the strain and the directors take a bonus for providing the worst train service in the UK? This is not a policy; it is lunacy.

As I referred to in my opening response, no payments have been made to Avanti under the service quality regime thus far. The department considers the comments from the leak to be a very serious issue, and expects the highest standards of culture and leadership from Avanti’s operators and senior management. We are extremely disappointed by the tone expressed in the leaked presentation. Officials have met their counterparts at First Rail Holdings, Avanti’s parent company, and spoken to the managing director to convey the seriousness of this issue. The Rail Minister has also met the chief executive of FirstGroup.

My Lords, if the House were sitting for five days next week and the Minister had Questions every day, and he arrived six minutes late on Monday, eight on Tuesday, 10 on Wednesday, 12 on Thursday and 14 on Friday, with the remarkable phrase, “I apologise for my lateness to arrive at the Dispatch Box and hope it does not disrupt the House too much,” one of two things would happen. We would have a whip-round for an alarm clock for him, or the Chief Whip would be looking for a new Minister, because that is accountability. Is nobody holding Avanti trains responsible? Those times I have given to the House are times of trains being late that do not qualify for any payment whatsoever. The long-suffering public are putting up with this day in and day out. Does the Minister think I am overegging it? The 9.35 for Euston was 21 minutes late in this lunchtime.

The decision to award the contract to First Trenitalia was contingent on the operator continuing to win back the confidence of passengers, but as with other operators, it is a combination of things. Its train crew issues are linked to its continued lack of driver overtime and ongoing industrial action. There are many issues that contribute to this. It is not always the operators’ fault.

My Lords, last week, the Government launched a draft rail reform Bill, which they claimed would put one organisation in charge of all the railways. It is pretty obvious that that organisation will be the Government. How will that actually improve the appalling service that Avanti is still giving, in spite of the Government actually being in charge now?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. We are committed to reforming the railways, and we are getting on with delivering improvements for passengers, freight customers and the taxpayer now. Rail reform remains a priority for government. Our priority for the next 12 months is delivering the improvements I just mentioned, and we are focused on collaborating with the sector to lay the foundations for a reformed industry, taking more of a whole-system perspective within the current legal framework.

My Lords, does the Minister remember that Parliament passed a minimum-service requirement in the context of strike action? Is it the case that, if there is bad weather, Avanti or any other rail company can order a fleet of taxis to ensure that passengers complete their journey, but if there is a strike, no alternative transport can be so ordered? Will the Minister look into this to ensure that the Act that Parliament passed is followed to the letter?

My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lord Snape for his tenacious pursuit of Avanti’s inferior performance. However, it is not just Avanti; Govia Thameslink regularly fails two-thirds of its performance measures. The industry is in a mess. Why do His Majesty’s Government not initiate legislation, already in draft, to create Great British Railways; or even better, call a general election and hand over this mess to a properly mandated Government?

The noble Lord asks about the Govia Thameslink Railway service. The new service quality regime was introduced in 2023, and the targets set for that period were drawn from the best available information at that time. We have been able to review and evaluate the outcomes of a standard set in 2022-23, with new levels for 2023-24. The department regularly discusses and reviews performance with Govia Thameslink Railway, and its service quality regime results have improved year on year. We will continue to hold it to account to deliver further improvements for passengers.

My Lords, a number of times in this short session, we seem to have had it suggested that somehow the Avanti staff are to blame. I suffer along with the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, regularly on that Manchester Piccadilly to Euston route. The staff are wonderful; it is not the driver’s fault if they are eight minutes late, or the fault of the person bringing you a cup of tea if they are 40 minutes late. The problem does not lie with the Avanti staff, who are working under incredibly difficult conditions. Can the Minister join me in expressing support for those staff in the work that they are doing under very trying circumstances?

I absolutely agree with the right reverend Prelate. I travel from Wales on the GWR system. Yesterday, we were an hour late arriving at Paddington. The staff are very good, and they keep us informed as to what the issues are. As I have said previously, the issues are not always the operators’ fault; they are very often to do with infrastructure.

The Minister referred to improving standards from Govia Thameslink. However, in the first year of the current contract, it failed on seven of the nine targets, which were then reduced and loosened. When the Minister says that it has improved, has it improved against the new, looser and lower targets, or has it actually improved its service to customers? Secondly, on reaching those targets, its leadership is entitled to a massive £23 million bonus. Will it achieve that on the lower targets that the Government have set?

The noble Baroness asks several questions there, and I would answer by saying that the targets are proportionate to the level of investment agreed with the business plan for any given year.

On service levels, do the Government share the concerns of the RMT union about Avanti’s proposals to withdraw cash payments from its catering services? This move shows scant regard for those older and poorer passengers who use only cash. Does the Minister agree with me that it would be far better for customers to have the option of cash and card for catering services?

My Lords, LNER generally performs significantly better than Avanti, but it is now proposing to reduce the hourly service from Berwick-upon-Tweed to a two-hourly service and lengthen journey times. How is that the improvement in passenger experience of which the Minister spoke?

I must confess that I am not aware of that, but it is something that I shall take back to the department and look into.

My Lords, why will the Government not just publish the contracts that we have with train operating companies? When I travel on Avanti back and forward, on every journey there is somebody in the carriage I am in who knows something about the contract, and I can tell you that the Government do not come out of any of those conversations well. Are all these contracts different for different train operating companies, so that they can compete with each other—because they do not seem to be? Why do the Government not just come clean and tell the people who are paying for all this nonsense what the contracts state that have been made on their behalf?

The Government are very conscious that it is taxpayers’ money; they keep that in mind. As to publishing contracts, again, that is something that I would have to take back to the department.