At the recent Prime Minister’s Questions this past Wednesday, Rishi Sunak came down hard on Avanti for their failure to deliver on passenger services, labelling the current state an “unacceptable deterioration.”
Akin to many operators across the UK, Avanti have been struggling to maintain standards due to the ongoing industrial action plaguing the railway due to disputes over pay and job security. The severity of this issue for Avanti was highlighted through the operator being forced to delay its mainline service to only one train per hour earlier this week.
Tory former minister Esther McVey spoke at the PMQ’s, stating that the journey times from Wilmslow in her constituency to London had doubled, saying:
“Now you’d be very lucking if you got a direct train and the journey time is… often double, and that’s not restricted to strike days, that’s day in day out on Avanti trains.
“What the Government’s going to do to sort this out and get the west coast service back to what it used to be because the service at the moment is completely unacceptable.”
Mr Sunak responded to this, saying:
“My right honourable friend is absolutely right about the unacceptable deterioration in the quality of Avanti’s service.
“The Transport Secretary is rightly monitoring and holding them to account. There is a plan to increase the number of trains… to more than 100 additional drivers and restoring the full direct service between Manchester and London.”
Avanti Managing Director Phil Whittingham recently released a statement addressing the ongoing impact that industrial action has had on the operator’s services, saying that the “current industrial relations climate” has resulted in “severe staff shortages in some grades through increased sickness levels, as well as unofficial strike action by Aslef members.”
Whilst Avanti have been clear in the issues that have related from striking staff, they are also struggling to fill driver vacancies due to an extensive backlog of existing training schemes that were halted through the recent pandemic restrictions. The strike action has compounded and exacerbated existing staff shortages that have forced a reliance on driver overtime.
To make matters worse for the operator, extra pressure is being heaped on through the 1,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) will stage more walkouts in the run-up to Christmas - when travel demand is expected to be higher than usual.
Thousands of trains have been cancelled across northern England at short notice in recent weeks, with TransPennine Express, Avanti and Northern all affected.
With new Transport Secretary Mark Harper in place, it is hoped that there can be some semblance of stability within the sector as the consistent chop and change for ministerial positions throughout this year has certainly not helped in the ongoing negotiations with unions. Though a settlement will not provide all the answers to Avanti’s current struggles, creating certainty around staffing levels can only improve the situation.
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