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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Paul Britton

Boss of under-fire train operator Avanti West Coast steps down ahead of strikes after timetable fury

The managing director of under-fire train operator Avanti West Coast has stepped down from his role, it was confirmed tonight. Phil Whittingham will leave his position on September 15 to 'pursue other executive leadership opportunities'.

The company has come in for fierce criticism from passengers and politicians alike after changing its timetabled services, with the Mayor of Greater Manchester saying last week he would call for Avanti's contract to be taken away unless it restores full services across Manchester.

Andy Burnham spoke of reports of passengers caught up in 'dangerous stampedes' for Manchester-bound trains at London Euston as he issued the operator with an ultimatum over a return to its original timetable.

Avanti announced earlier this month that it was cutting the number of trains between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly from one every 20 minutes to one an hour 'until further notice'. The operator said it had cut trains in the wake of industrial action 'to ensure a reliable service is delivered so customers can travel with greater certainty'.

But Mr Burnham spoke of witnessing 'chaos' on trains and passengers finding seats double booked. He also criticised Avanti over reports of slow ticket release sales and maintenance issues on trains, like 'leaking roofs and broken café facilities'.

Passengers have reported double-booked seats (PA)

Avanti West Coast - the brand name for a partnership between transport company FirstGroup and Italian firm Trenitalia - have run services on the West Coast Main Line route from December 2019 after the demise of Virgin Trains. The 400-mile train network links London with towns and cities across England, north Wales and Scotland.

September 15 is the date further strike action is due to hit the company. Mr Whittingham transferred to Avanti West Coast, as managing director, from Virgin West Coast Trains Ltd, following the rail franchise change process, after 23 years in various roles on the railway.

Steve Montgomery, First Rail managing director, said: "Having led the team through the challenges presented by the pandemic over the last 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 the rail operators facing more strikes in the coming weeks and has been involved in a row over Sunday working by drivers.

A spokesman for the drivers union Aslef said: "The MD of Avanti West Coast has gone because he lied about unofficial action at the company. We look forward to working with a new MD who can, and will, deliver for passengers and staff.”

Avanti West Coast (Darren Quinton/Birmingham Live)

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said: "This failing operator has caused travel misery for millions. And rather than lift a finger to hold them to account, the transport secretary defended this abject failure, handed over taxpayers’ cash, and chose to blame workers instead.

"If the Government had any interest in doing their job, they would finally stand up for passengers, claw back taxpayers’ money for services that haven’t run, strip the operator of the contract and put in place an urgent plan to restore the timetable."

The Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) said its members at Avanti West Coast will walk out this month in an escalation of the dispute over pay, job security and conditions. Strikes will be held on September 15 and 17, the same days as industrial action by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union.

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