Avanti West Coast: ‘It’s barely possible to travel around the North of England by rail,’ MPs told

MPs investigating failures by Avanti West Coast and other train operators have been told: “It’s become barely possible to travel around the North of England by rail.”

The transport select committee is conducting a special session on train travel in northern England. The first witness was Jennifer Williams, northern correspondent at the Financial Times.

She said: “It has become barely possible, to be honest, to travel north to south or east to west if you’re in the North of England if you’re trying to get around by rail.

“It’s become very common for people to say, ‘You can’t really tell if it’s a strike day or not in the North of England at the moment.

“Avanti has its own special kind of chaos.”

Avanti West Coast runs trains from Manchester, Lancaster, Liverpool, Preston, Wigan, Warrington and Crewe to London Euston, as well as links to southern Scotland, the West Midlands and North Wales.

“The actual experience of getting an Avanti service is appalling in all sorts of ways,” Ms Williams said.

“The trains are overcrowded. It’s very often impossible to book tickets in advance.

“Often seat reservations end up being suspended. People are sat on the floor. The trains are dirty. Things are broken: card machines are broken, toilets are broken, aircon is broken.”

The committee heard that trains on the West Coast main line had been reliant on staff working on rest days for decades. In August, the number of drivers volunteering for overtime fell dramatically and an emergency timetable with fewer trains was brought in.

On Sunday a new schedule with more services began, which Avanti West Coast says is not dependent on rest-day working.

Richard Scott, director of corporate affairs at the West Coast Partnership – which runs the Avanti West Coast franchise – said services had now improved.

But he conceded: “People need to rebuild their confidence. That’s not a switch we can flip overnight. The way we will rebuild that confidence is by delivering consistently so that people think, ‘I can rely on Avanti’. And that’s what we’re going to do.

“We’re running the timetable we said we would run.”

Mr Scott warned there could be short-notice cancellations due to sickness during the flu season, but said they would not be “on the scale that people have previously seen”.

He also apologised for the service to vulnerable passengers and those with additional needs. He said: “The service that we have provided over recent months has not been good enough. I apologise unreservedly for that.

“The key to all of this is getting back to a stable timetable that we can deliver.”

The senior Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, asked the Avanti West Coast executive if the train firm was considering changing its name.

“It’s a misnomer, isn’t it? ‘Avanti’ means forwards,” he said. “But you’ve been going relentlessly backwards ever since you took over from Virgin.”

Mr Scott said: “It’s not been good enough over the past few months, I completely accept that. But we are moving forwards now.

“The timetable which came in on Sunday is the way to do that.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive at Transport Focus, said: “Clearly there’s been some kind of serious breakdown at Avanti of industrial relations overall.

“The staff-management relationships don’t seem to be good and need resetting.”

Lord McLoughlin, chair of Transport for the North and former transport secretary, said: “There are signs of improvement. Avanti did manage to run the three-trains-an-hour [between Manchester and London] on Monday, but of course, we’re now into a national dispute.”

Strikes called by the RMT union are disrupting rail travel across Great Britain this week until Sunday, with further stoppages planned early in the new year.

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