Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says under-fire Avanti West Coast is in 'the last chance saloon' after its boss stepped down. Phil Whittingham, the train operator's managing director, will leave his post on September 15.
The company has been subject to severe criticism from passengers and politicians after slashing its timetabled services. Last week Mr Burnham said he would call for Avanti's contract to be terminated unless it restores full services across Greater Manchester.
He 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 is currently operating a much-reduced service with one train an hour running between London and Manchester.
Last week, Mr Burnham called for an action plan from Avanti. Such a plan, he says, has not been received.
Mr Burnham said today (Saturday, September 3): "Avanti West Coast has failed to deliver on their commitment to explain how they will restore services between Manchester and London and failed to bring the stability to the timetable which they promised. Every day that this continues is a day of damage to the Greater Manchester economy and it cannot be allowed to continue.
“Weeks ago, the company tried to blame their workers for the problems. However, their inability to produce a rescue plan by the deadline we set has flushed out the truth - it is managers, not the workers, who are responsible for the chaos. In their desperation to blame the unions for everything, the government has let this company off the hook and let passengers down.
“This is a company being paid millions of pounds to operate trains on the West Coast Main Line but is only delivering a threadbare service and a very poor one at that. They have to be held to account. So far, Greater Manchester has been doing that alone, but I am now urging the incoming Prime Minister and Transport Secretary to sit down with us and sort this out. This service is critical to our country’s economy and we need to fix it together.
“For Avanti, this is the last chance saloon. They need to understand the urgency of the situation. They should today be making a full public apology for their failures and providing a detailed explanation of the steps they are taking to fix things. Anything less is further evidence that they don’t deserve the privilege of running the UK’s most important train line."
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, Mr 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 [Mr 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."
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."
A spokesperson for Avanti West Coast said: “We know we’re not delivering the service our customers rightly expect and we apologise for the enormous frustration and inconvenience.
“Our customers and communities deserve a dependable train service, so we’re currently working hard to rebuild our timetable in a resilient and sustainable way.
“Resolving this situation requires a robust plan that will allow us to gradually increase services without being reliant on traincrew overtime, which has fallen dramatically in recent weeks. We would like to thank our customers for their patience and understanding.
"In the first two weeks of operating our new timetable, cancellations, as a result of traincrew availability, have fallen to below 3% overall and to as low as 1% on our Manchester route. This compares to having to cancel one in six of our services (16%) prior to the change
"In the two weeks prior to the introduction of the new timetable 511 (16%) of our scheduled 3156 services were cancelled as a result of traincrew availability issues. In the first two weeks of operation related cancellations has fallen to below 3% - 62 cancellations from our scheduled timetable of 2172 services."
A Department of Transport spokesperson said: “People deserve certainty and confidence that their train will run on time, and while the change of schedule was unavoidable, it should minimise the fallout for passengers.
“This is a prime example of why we need to modernise our railways, so passengers benefit from reliable timetables that don’t rely on the goodwill of drivers volunteering to work overtime in the first place.
“As with all contract awards, Government will consider all options when Avanti West Coast’s contract expires on 16 October.”
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