Leaders in Greater Manchester have joined the Mayor of London in condemning Avanti West Coast to cut the number of services to and from the capital. City-region mayor, Andy Burnham, leader of Manchester City Council, Bev Craig, and London mayor, Sadiq Khan, have penned a letter to the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, asking for an urgent meeting to restore the full timetable.
Avanti West Coast, who run services between Manchester Piccadilly and London Euston, have temporarily suspended the sale of tickets and is in the process of slashing its timetable to just one service an hour. The company is blaming "unofficial strike action" by the train drivers union ASLEF for this decision, however, this excuse has been described as "disingenuous" by the leaders.
This limited timetable will be in place “until further notice”, Avanti West Coast has said. The letter to Grant Shapps shared by the Mayor of Greater Manchester said this decision came with no notice or consultation with leaders, something they describe as "completely unacceptable".
This timetable reduction comes at a "critical time" in post-Covid-19 economic recovery for both cities, they say, and will affect some major events, such as Manchester Pride and Notting Hill Carnival, as well as a number of sporting fixtures. The leaders have slammed the Avanti management for not being able to prevent an "entirely foreseeable situation" of staff illness and drivers choosing to not work on their rest days.
While ticket sales are suspended passengers seeking to travel to London from Manchester will either have to use the near six hour coach to the capital, get a local train service to Crewe before changing to a London Northwestern service to London Euston, or drive and face high parking costs. Andy Burnham, Bev Craig, and Sadiq Khan, are therefore calling for an urgent meeting with the transport secretary and Avanti management to restore the full timetable.
They say if Avanti are unable to agree to a date for restoring the timetable, the contract for operating the service should be taken away from them.
The full letter to the transport secretary reads: "We are angered by Avanti West Coast’s decision to inflict a drastically reduced timetable on travel between our cities. The plan to run just four trains an hour from London Euston, with only one service to Manchester, came with no notice nor any consultation beforehand and no date by which the full timetable will be restored. This is completely unacceptable.
"Avanti’s severely reduced timetable will damage some of the UK’s largest and most important economic and cultural centres at a critical time in their recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. This month alone will see the Manchester Pride Festival and Notting Hill Carnival take place, alongside sporting fixtures and other attractions for which people will need to travel between London and Manchester. This morning, people are already unable to book advance tickets online.
"Our cities rely heavily on the West Coast Main Line and this unilateral withdrawal of services, on the basis of what appears to be a complete failure of Avanti’s senior management to manage rostering and rest day working, is frankly a national outrage. Avanti have blamed this disruption on “unofficial strike action” by ASLEF, the train drivers’ union. Not only is this description disingenuous – drivers are completely entitled to choose not to work on their rest days – it also seeks to shift blame off Avanti management for their failure to provide appropriate mitigations for an entirely foreseeable situation.
"It also reflects extremely poorly on an operator that should be working hard to bring the public back to rail. Avanti’s decision to suspend ticket sales damages the efforts of other public transport operators, making it harder for people to take the train and other sustainable forms of travel.
"In order to prevent the enormous disruption and economic damage these service reductions will cause, we are seeking an urgent meeting with you, your officials and Avanti’s management to agree a date for full restoration of the timetable. If Avanti is unable to agree a date, or is unable to meet that date once agreed, we would ask that you begin the process of withdrawing the operator’s contract and do not grant it a new National Rail Contract once current arrangements end in October this year.
"Given the seriousness of this situation, we would appreciate an early reply."
In a letter to the rail industry, seen by the PA news agency, Avanti West Coast managing director Phil Whittingham wrote that the “current industrial relations climate” has resulted in “severe staff shortages in some grades through increased sickness levels, as well as unofficial strike action by Aslef members”. He explained that the operator normally ran around 400 trains per week with drivers voluntarily working on their rest days – for extra pay – but that has “dropped suddenly to fewer than 50”.
Mr Whittingham wrote that the previous level of rest day working is “necessary” while more than 250 new drivers are recruited and trained. He went on: “The reduced timetable is being introduced to ensure a reliable service is delivered so our customers can travel with greater certainty. This decision was not taken lightly, and we are sorry for the enormous frustration and inconvenience this will cause."
Aslef has insisted that its members at Avanti West Coast are not involved in strike action before a walkout on Saturday (August 13) in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions. Drivers at eight other train companies will also strike on Saturday. They are CrossCountry, Greater Anglia, Great Western, Hull Trains, LNER, London Overground, Southeastern and West Midlands Trains.
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