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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Christy Cooney

Avanti West Coast in ‘last chance saloon’ after failures, says Andy Burnham

Avanti is one of the rail operators facing more strikes in the coming weeks.
Avanti is one of the rail operators facing more strikes in the coming weeks. Photograph: Andy Gibson/Alamy

The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has told Avanti West Coast it is in the “last chance saloon” after the resignation of its managing director amid long-running disruption and reductions to its schedule.

On Friday, it was announced that Phil Whittingham would leave his role from 15 September to “pursue other executive leadership opportunities”.

The company is currently operating a significantly reduced service, with one train an hour running between London and Manchester and tickets released only days in advance.

Avanti West Coast has said the disruption has been caused by severe staff shortages, and it previously blamed the “current industrial relations climate”, but the union Aslef said the rail operator had long been relying on train staff working on rest days to operate services.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Burnham was critical of what he called a “serious management failure” at the firm.

“Finally, there seems to be an acknowledgment that major change is needed,” he said.

“What [Whittingham’s departure] reveals is that the reason given at the start of this reduced timetable is clearly not the true story.

“If you remember, the company pointed the finger at the trade unions, so did the government. In doing that, I think the government allowed the company to be let off the hook.”

Asked if he was calling on the government to ditch the operator from the franchise, Burnham said: “This company are in the last chance saloon because I cannot accept indefinite chaos on this railway line and the loss of those services.

“The key for me is what restores three or four trains to London, which is what we used to have.

“All the options have now to be looked at. Is this company the right company to carry on? Or do we need a change? This is now for the government today to answer.”

He also called on the government to meet with him instead of “playing politics”.

“This is England’s most important railway line linking its biggest cities,” he said.

“We cannot operate like this when we’re trying to get the economy of the country going.”

Whittingham joined Avanti West Coast from Virgin West Coast Trains Limited in 2019 after 23 years in various roles on the railway.

Steve Montgomery, the managing director of First Rail, which operates Avanti, said: “Having led the team through the challenges presented by the pandemic over the past two years and into the recovery period, Phil leaves with the team ready for the challenges in delivering the future service requirements.

“I would like to thank Phil and wish him well in the future.”

Avanti is one of a number of rail operators facing more strikes in the coming weeks, with the dispute partly focused on Sunday working for drivers.

A spokesperson for the drivers’ union Aslef said: “The managing director of Avanti West Coast has gone because he lied about unofficial action at the company.

“We look forward to working with a new managing director who can, and will, deliver for passengers and staff.”

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