Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express problems: why are trains cancelled and what are timetable changes?

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Troubled train operators under fire over last-minute cancellations, delays and ‘substandard’ trains as government threatens to strip Avanti of franchise

Rail passengers in the north of England and Scotland are facing a winter of discontent as thousands of trains are cancelled or delayed due to problems with two major operators.

Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express (TPE) are under fire after months of problems on key routes between London, the North and Scotland. The issues at Avanti are so serious that the government is considering renationalising the West Coast franchise in an effort to improve matters.

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Since the summer users have faced cuts to services and last minute timetable changes, and the issues look set to continue into the new year as passengers and politicians demand action to fix the “mess” causing misery for millions of travellers.

Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary and MP for Sheffield Heeley slammed the “sub-standard” service her constituents faced and accused the operators of “abject failure”. Chris Clarkson, the Tory MP for Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester, said Avanti’s current timetable appeared to be “designed using a tombola.” Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has weighed in, criticising the “unacceptable deterioration” of Avanti’s services.

What are the problems on Avanti and TPE?

Both operators have been beset by issues since the summer, with passengers facing massive disruption and inconvenience. Services have been delayed or cancelled and passengers regularly complain of substandard facilities on the trains that do run.

Both companies have slashed their services in recent months as they struggle to run trains. In mid-August Avanti reduced its timetable on key routes, cutting around 65 trains per day, including reducing the London-Manchester service cut from three trains per hour to one.

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TPE made similar cuts on its routes between England and Scotland, cutting services from 40 per day to 31 from mid-September until mid-December. Trains between Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh were affected as well as services on Manchester-to-Lancaster and Liverpool-to-Preston routes.

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Both operators have also been cancelling dozens of other trains at the last minute and passengers have been left furious at long delays on services which do run. Between October 16 and November 12, only 1 in 3 Avanti trains arrived on time, according to the Office of Rail and Road and over the past 12 months 8% of all Avanti West Coast services have been cancelled. That compares to a national average of 4.1%.

TPE managed slightly better, with 48% of trains arriving on time, but separate analysis of cancellations found that in November it scrapped almost one in five scheduled trains. This included last-minute changes recorded by the ORR and cancellations made before 10pm the previous day, which are not counted by the ORR.

Avanti’s own travel tracker on 6 December revealed 35 separate services either delayed, cancelled or missing stops on that day. Some were caused by trackside problems but many were blamed on staff shortages, broken down trains or trains being diverted to cover for previously cancelled services.

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On the same day, TPE revealed that it was partially or fully cancelling 43 services on 7 December covering routes across northern England and between England and Scotland.

Passengers also regularly complain of problems on the trains that do run, including faulty seat reservation systems that mean pre-booked seats aren’t honoured, a lack of food or drinks service, out-of-use toilets and broken air conditioning.

What is causing the cancellations and delays?

Like other operators, Avanti and TPE have been affected by the nationwide RMT strikes and by action by other unions, including TSSA and the train drivers’ union Aslef. However, their problems largely stem from staffing problems.

For years trains operators have used staff working overtime to keep all of their services running. Avanti and TPE have relied on workers agreeing to do extra shifts on their days off to help crew their trains. However, amid months of industrial unrest and reported low morale, many workers have stopped volunteering, leaving services short-staffed.

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Mick Whelan, general secretary of Alsef said: “[Avanti] does not employ enough drivers to deliver the services it has promised passengers it will run. In fact, the company itself has admitted that 400 trains a week are dependent on drivers working their rest days.”

TPE also blames high levels of illness and training delays for the reduction in service and constant last-minute changes. A spokesperson said: “Due to the ongoing impact of higher-than-normal sickness levels and a number of other issues including a training backlog as a direct result of Covid, it is necessary to make amendments to some services in advance to ensure the majority of the timetable operates efficiently.”

What is being done to fix the problems?

Avanti says it is working hard to address the problems faced by passengers since the summer. It is recruiting more staff and expects to have 100 more drivers by the end of December than it did in April. Over coming weeks it is due to increase the number of services from 180 per day to 264 on weekdays.

Barry Milsom, executive director of operations 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 this is causing. Resolving this situation required a robust plan that allows us to gradually increase services without being reliant on traincrew overtime. We are now in a position to start delivering this incremental increase. We’ll continue to review our timetable beyond December with our industry partners.”

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Among improvements due in December are increasing the number of services to three trains per hour between Manchester and London; two trains per hour between Birmingham and London; one train per hour between London and Glasgow; one train per hour between Liverpool and London, and additional direct services between Chester/North Wales and London. There will also be additional trains at peak times on Birmingham and Manchester routes.

Kathryn O’Brien, customer service and operations director at TransPennine Express said a  timetable from 10 December would improve connectivity across northern England and into Scotland. She said: “Our number one focus is providing the most reliable and punctual service possible for customers, and we continue to prioritise this following the recent disruption which has impacted some of those using our trains.

“In light of the current challenges affecting our services, we have to be realistic and have made some short-term changes to what we originally wanted to deliver. Our priority is delivering a train service people can depend on whether it’s getting them to work, school or an important appointment.”

The planned changes will see the reintroduction of services between Manchester and Scotland via the West Coast Mainline and the extension of Cleethorpes – Manchester services to Liverpool Lime Street via Warrington and Liverpool South Parkway.

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The government has threatened to strip Avanti of the West Coast franchise unless its performance improves significantly. In October transport minister Kevin Foster granted a six-month extension of the franchise until April 2023 but warned that this could be removed if the operator failed to deliver the “standard we and the public expect”.

He said: “We need train services that are reliable and resilient to modern-day life. While the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers. Things must improve during this probation period for this contract to be further extended.”

If Avanti is stripped of the franchise, the government would take over operation of the West Coast routes through its Operator of Last Resort (OLR). The OLR has already taken over the running of LNER services, Northern Trains, South Eastern and services in Scotland and Wales after problems with their private operators.

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