Northern political and transport leaders have called on the UK government to urgently review Avanti West Coast’s operations amid a renewed surge in intercity rail cancellations and delays.
The intervention came as it emerged that morale at the train operating company has plummeted to the point where only 3% of staff say they feel valued, according to an internal Avanti survey seen by the Guardian.
Transport for the North (TfN), the board of which is made up of council leaders and mayors across the north of England, has written to the transport secretary, Mark Harper, asking him to instruct officials to conduct a review into the company. Avanti was given a new long-term contract this year before again cutting its timetable.
TfN said the service was rapidly deteriorating, with the latest industry figures showing fewer than half of trains running on time, just 46.3% meeting the public performance measure and 32% cancelled or severely delayed.
The late running and cancellation statistics are based on a timetable that was already reduced for December owing to a lack of staff on the UK’s most important route, linking London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.
TfN urged Harper to make Avanti declassify all first-class carriages to provide more seats.
Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor and chair of the Rail North Committee, said: “This torrent of cancellations and delays on Avanti services is simply unacceptable. This is one of the most important times of the year for many families and businesses, all of whom are being let down by this deteriorating rail service without an end in sight.
“This cannot be allowed to continue. That is why we have written to the government to ask for them to conduct a critical review of Avanti as a matter of priority. Given the critical importance of this service at this time of year, it is also vital that all seats on Avanti West Coast services are made available for use by declassifying all first-class accommodation until an acceptable service can be restored.”
An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said: “Declassifying our trains will not solve the current challenges we are seeing on our network. Our train managers already have the discretion to declassify our services if they are busy due to disruption, and have done so several times recently.”
It is understood that a number of the recent cancellations were beyond Avanti’s control, including track problems and an emergency incident.
The spokesperson added: “As well as disruption, we have been seeing some short-notice cancellations on our network and would like to apologise to our customers for the inconvenience caused as we know this is not good enough. These service changes are a result of resourcing challenges where we have seen a shortage of train crew due to historic leave agreements. We are working hard to make sure we can minimise these cancellations.”
Meanwhile, an internal Avanti employee survey has highlighted the depth of disillusionment felt by workers at the FirstGroup and Trenitalia joint venture. Out of more than 2,000 respondents, only 7% said they felt happy and 3% said they felt valued, while 56% said they felt unappreciated.
Asked if they believed Avanti West Coast was “committed to delivering good service for its customers”, only one in five staff agreed. Fewer than one in six would recommend Avanti as a place to work, while only one in 10 said they thought any action would be taken as a result of the survey.
Avanti’s spokesperson said: “We knew these results would show there is a lot to do.” They said it would use the feedback “to improve the business, focusing on our people, our customers as well as the communities we serve”.
Harper had declared Avanti “back on track” when awarding FirstGroup and Trenitalia a nine-year contract this year, to consternation from unions and northern leaders. The operator had become notorious for delays and cancellations in 2022, when it first took the decision to abandon its normal timetable.