Burnham demands ministers hold Avanti West Coast to account over failings

Katie Neame

Andy Burnham has demanded that the government hold Avanti West Coast train company to account for the issues with its service, declaring that it is a “management failure” and a “government failure”.

Avanti was found to be the worst-performing operator in the country, with almost half of its services arriving late. The company announced last week that it was cutting the number of trains between London Euston and Manchester from one every 20 minutes to one per hour “until further notice.”

Avanti said the move was necessary to “ensure a reliable service” as the “industrial relations climate” had led to “severe staff shortages in some grades through increased sickness levels, as well as unofficial strike action by ASLEF members”.

The train drivers’ union declared last week that there had been no “unofficial action”. General secretary Mick Whelan said Avanti does not employ enough drivers to operate the service fully. He added that the company has admitted that hundreds of trains per week are dependent on drivers working on their rest days.

Speaking to Sky News this morning, the Greater Manchester mayor said: “It’s just not good enough this summer for the government to sit back, do nothing, go on holiday and say: ‘Blame the workers, blame the workers.’

“Ordinary people, who they were clapping last year, and now they’re pointing the finger of blame at them saying it’s all their fault. Well, it’s not all of their fault. This is a management failure. This is a government failure. They should be sitting down today and sorting this out.”

Burnham stressed that Avanti had “run the service down”, failed to recruit and train enough drivers and “destroyed the goodwill that’s there”.

He added: “If you’re going to run the railway on volunteers – which is in their business model and was in the Virgin business model before it – if you’re going to do that as a company, you’re going to have to work hard to keep people with you and work with those drivers, but they’ve completely failed to do that.”

Burnham said Grant Shapps has given the company a “free pass”, declaring: “They can do whatever they like as far as he’s concerned, because they’re parroting his mantra about ‘It’s all the unions’.”

The mayor said he had meet with Avanti this week: “I asked them, why did you not notify a city as big as ours where they’ve got so much happening, you just didn’t even tell us you were doing this. That is not right and they had no explanation for why they did that.

“And I also said to them they must bring back to us a credible plan to restore the timetable within days or we will ask the new Prime Minister to remove this contract from this company.”

The mayor stressed: “Our economy is trying to recover from Covid – our bars, our restaurants, our taxis – and this government is hitting them again by their incompetence and their inaction on this issue.”

“The government should hold this company to account, get them to do what they’re being paid to do, and that’s the Transport Secretary’s job,” he added.

Whelan said last week: “There is – and has been – no unofficial action on Avanti West Coast this week. The truth is that the company 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 (that is, working overtime on their days off).

“Avanti was already running a truncated timetable. Now it has doubled down by cutting even more services. It would have no need to do this if it had enough drivers!

“The company should stop lying and start recruiting. Then it will be able to deliver the services it has promised passengers it will run. At the moment, the company is lying to passengers and lying to staff. It needs to do better.”

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