Under-fire train operator Avanti West Coast cancelled almost one in five services in recent weeks as rail reliability in Britain reached its worst level ever.
Analysis of Office of Rail and Road (ORR) data by the PA news agency found that in the four weeks to 7 January, 8% of all services across all operators were cancelled - the worst overall figure ever recorded. However, on Avanti that figure shot up to 18.9%.
That is one of the highest individual cancellation rates ever and the news comes as Avanti has been warned to improve its plans for producing timetables or face “formal measures”.
Avanti is already under threat of being stripped of its franchise after months of delays and last minute cancellations. A short-term extension to its contract was granted in October 2022 but the government could step in to take over unless services improve dramatically before 1 April.
The overall cancellation figures for the four weeks to early January were double those of the previous four weeks and the worst in records dating back to 2014. Labour said the figures showed an industry in crisis but industry insiders said the figures covered a period of huge disruption where overtime bans and the knock-on effects of strike action had an impact on scheduled services.
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents operators, said the coronavirus pandemic had had a long-term impact on services by reducing staff training in 2020 and 2021 and increasing absence rates.
As well as having the worst reliability record, Avanti was to blame for a higher proportion of the cancellations, according to the figures. The ORR figures show 53% of cancellations across Britain were attributed to train companies, with the remainder due to issues with Network Rail‘s infrastructure. For Avanti West Coast, the split was 68% for the operator and 32% for Network Rail.
Avanti West Coast has been underfire since summer 2022 over the reliability of its services and standards on its trains. In August last year it slashed its timetable to cut short-notice cancellations which were caused by a sharp decline in the number of drivers voluntarily working on rest days.
In December it introduced a new timetable with up to 80 more services per day but this was quickly followed by poor reliability. An Avanti spokesman said that since the start of January services had been “steadily improving”, adding: “We know that our customers have not been getting the service they deserve and we’re sorry for that.”
As well as problems with its reliability, Avanti is under fire from the watchdog for only putting tickets on sale a short time ahead of travel, which has led to claims passengers are being denied access to cheaper fares.
Weekday tickets have been released far later than the 12-week booking window normally used by operators and weekend tickets have been going on sale just a few days in advance. The ORR warned the company it must submit an improved recovery plan for producing timetables by 2 February or potentially face “formal measures”.
Stephanie Tobyn, director of strategy, policy and reform at the ORR, said: “Passengers are rightly frustrated that this situation has deteriorated so quickly after a steady start to the recovery plan late last year.
“By 2 February we expect Avanti to identify what has gone wrong and set out how it intends to get back to releasing timetables in normal industry timescales so that passengers can plan and book journeys with greater confidence. Failure to produce an acceptable plan or to deliver improvements may lead to more formal measures.”
Avanti West Coast said the delay has been caused by the requirement to produce bespoke timetables during engineering work. Tickets can only be made available for sale once timetables are confirmed.
An Avanti spokesman said: “Unfortunately, some tickets for Saturdays and Sundays have only been available at short notice due to having to write unprecedented numbers of bespoke timetables to accommodate industrial action and engineering work which has stretched industry train planning resources.
“We know this causes huge uncertainty and inconvenience for passengers, and we’re sorry for that. “We’re working with our colleagues at Network Rail to get tickets on sale as soon as possible. Weekend tickets are now on sale up to mid-February, and by mid-March we’ll be selling weekend tickets six weeks out.”