Avanti West Coast

– in the House of Commons at 12:38 pm on 7th September 2022.

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Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons) 12:38 pm, 7th September 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the future of Avanti West Coast railway services.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The current west coast franchise agreement is due to expire on 16 October. As with all contract awards, the Government will act in accordance with the Railways Act 1993 section 26(1) franchising policy statement, and a decision has yet to be taken by the Secretary of State. Given the market and the commercially sensitive nature of the outcome, further information cannot be provided at this time.

Like all operators, Avanti has used a degree of rest-day working to operate its timetable. In essence, this means that drivers have been volunteering to work the additional shifts over and above their contracted hours. The industry arrangement has been in place for many years, to the benefit of the drivers, the operators and indeed the passengers. Avanti has a rest-day working arrangement that remains in place with the ASLEF union, which represents about 95% of the drivers.

However, on 30 July this year Avanti experienced an unprecedented, immediate and near total cessation of drivers volunteering to work passenger trains on their rest days. This left Avanti unable to resource its timetable and, in the immediate term, resulted in significant short-notice cancellations. Avanti has reduced its timetable in response to the withdrawal of rest-day working. Reducing the timetable provided better certainty and reliability for passengers as it reduced the number of short-notice cancellations.

The Department continues to work closely with Avanti to monitor performance, while Avanti continues to review the demand data and the position regarding train crew availability to inform options to reliably increase services. An increase in services between Manchester and London remains an absolute priority and Avanti will continue to look for opportunities to support passengers and businesses along the route.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State is not here, as this issue impacts millions of people in our constituencies.

Many of us saw the chaos at Manchester Piccadilly, London Euston and several other stations over the summer as Avanti West Coast slashed its timetables and suspended ticket sales at short notice, cutting key towns and cities off from each other. Now, in September, the problem has persisted and the chaos continues to blight the lives of thousands of people not only in my constituency but across the north-west of England and other parts of the UK. Avanti says that this has been caused by “unofficial strike action” and

“the current industrial relations climate”— phrases that serve only to abdicate management responsibility for ensuring that the trains are properly staffed.

ASLEF and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers members across the country have indeed recently been on strike in defence of their pay, terms and conditions—I pay tribute to those members for doing so—but their strike action has no bearing on the fact that Avanti has a business model that expects train drivers to work their rest days as a way of maintaining the service, rather than having sufficient staffing levels.

We know that there have been underlying problems at Avanti for a long time. Figures from the Office of Rail and Road for the first three months of the year show that Avanti’s performance was already behind that of other franchises, such as those on the great western and east coast main lines. The company was paid £17 million in performance and management fees from the public purse in just two years, including for “operational performance”, “customer experience” and

“acting as a good and efficient operator”.

Anyone who has been on Avanti trains knows that that is absolutely untrue.

Now, customers are unable to purchase return tickets when seats for one leg have not been released, forcing people to buy two singles or open returns at greater cost; there continues to be a lack of clarity and certainty around the release of tickets; and many outlets still say “sold out”, leading people to believe there are no tickets left. My constituents, and all those who use this vital service, need and deserve clarity. We have seen poorer performance, with the threat of the closure of ticket offices, yet higher fares. It simply does not add up.

The previous Prime Minister and his Government preached levelling up, but by failing to address this crisis the Government are causing huge economic damage to Stockport, Greater Manchester and other areas across the north. As cleaners, guards, drivers and other rail staff work hard to provide a good service, the company and its management continually let the public down.

Did the former Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, approve the decision to cut Avanti’s timetable? Could the Minister tell the House who is incurring the revenue loss following the cuts to Avanti’s timetable—the train operator of the taxpayer? When will the Department for Transport come up with a proper plan to end this chaos so that the route is properly up and running again? Rail passengers deserve much better.

I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker—thank you.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points. I completely understand the frustration and disappointment, but more than anything the need to give passengers the confidence in our rail sector to know that their train services will be safe, affordable and reliable.

This is a long-standing challenge. As I have already set out, the rest-day working agreement has been in place for many years, but it is a way of working that can no longer continue in a modern-day rail service. Part of the challenge is with recruitment and retention, which is why we are working to improve the gender balance among drivers, which is woefully low, and to improve the age diversity of drivers. When the average age is 51 years and the average age of retirement is 59, we clearly have a problem with retention. That is where we are focusing our efforts, in partnership with Avanti and all train operators.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. At the heart of this are the passengers who are losing out yet again, and I absolutely agree with the Minister that we cannot run the rail system in such an antiquated fashion, with train operators not able to fix in advance when their staff will be rostered. I hope there will be some changes on that. The transport Bill and the formation of Great British Railways will provide many of the solutions to transform the railways. Is the Bill’s Second Reading still on track to be delivered this autumn?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Great British Railways was a manifesto promise and that will continue. We are working with the House to secure the time and support required to continue with that legislation.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Thank you for granting this important urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Avanti West Coast’s decision to slash services on the UK’s busiest rail route has left passengers facing chaos; it has lost more than 220,000 seats per week between our major towns and cities. The damage that this shambles is doing to the regional economy and the public purse is enormous, yet, incredibly, it was signed off by the Government. Ministers have let this failing operator get away with appalling performance for far too long: the fewest trains on time; more complaints than any other operator; and a wholesale failure to train new drivers. A serving Transport Minister in the Lords has admitted that its performance is “terrible”.

Despite that, this Department has handed tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in performance and management fees, which have then been pocketed by shareholders, including—you could not make this up—a £4 million bonus for “customer performance”. What passengers need to hear today is a plan to get this vital line back on track, because those who rely on this service are tired of excuses. It is not sustainable or reasonable to continue to rely on the good will of drivers to work on their rest days, so will the Minister demand an urgent plan from the operator to restore the timetable, as she is perfectly entitled to do under the contract? Will she commit to claw back taxpayers’ money for services that have not run? Will she tell the House why, despite a contractual obligation to train new drivers, Avanti has comprehensively failed to do so? Above all, will she ask the new Secretary of State to guarantee that there will be no more reward for failure and to strip Avanti of its contract when it comes up for renewal next month? This ongoing fiasco is causing real damage to the economy, passengers and the public. The Ministers must stop washing their hands of responsibility and, finally, intervene.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I completely agree with the shadow spokeslady on the need to modernise the workforce. People volunteering to work rest days is no longer a sustainable way to run the rail sector, and that is what we are tackling. On timetabling, however, it is surely better to provide certainty over uncertainty. The timetabling decision was made so that at least passengers could be provided with the confidence that the trains they see on the timetable will be running—they certainly were not previously. She will know that the rewards decision is an independent decision, and in some aspects Avanti performed well and in others it certainly did not. As I am sure she will know, the decision to be taken on 16 October is a commercially sensitive one, which I will not discuss, not least because I am not the rail Minister. I have every confidence, because the Secretary of State said so yesterday evening, that she will be meeting stakeholders, including those in the rail sector, and a new rail Minister will be appointed very shortly.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her response to this urgent question. The blame lies on both sides: the unofficial strikes are completely unwarranted and are causing immense trouble for my constituents, who are given the most appalling treatment as a result of those strikes. Furthermore, Avanti itself has got to get its act together, and get it together soon. I have been using this line on the west coast for 37 years, since I first came into Parliament, and I have never seen it in such a state as it is in at the moment. Finally, as HS2 is part of this argument, I just want to say that it is a white elephant, and I hope the Prime Minister will get rid of it as soon as possible, certainly from Birmingham northwards.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As ever, my hon. Friend makes excellent points. I wholeheartedly agree that the situation is untenable and needs to be improved. I also travel frequently—indeed, most weeks—on my journey down to London on Northern, TransPennine and Avanti services into London Euston, so I share the challenges and the pain that those undertaking journeys to Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow Central and Manchester are currently enduring. That is why we are working hard in the Department for Transport with our train operating companies, particularly on the matter of recruitment, diversity and retention, to ensure that we have train drivers who are trained so that we can operate a safe, affordable and reliable service in future.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

The inflammatory tone and language the outgoing Secretary of State used regarding the ongoing industrial relations dispute has been echoed by many operators, including Avanti. That is very much to be regretted, and I hope that new leadership changes this.

Reports last week suggested that Avanti was being considered for a long-term contract award. Is there any truth to those reports, and what discussions are taking place about using the operator of last resort to take over services? Avanti paid out £11 million in dividends to shareholders last year, 30% of which went to the Italian state-owned operator Trenitalia. It is a clear sign of the failure of privatised rail operators when profits are being used to subsidise public transport in Italy, rather than the UK, so what discussions are being had with the Scottish Government about the situation at Avanti and, more broadly, how Scotland was able to nationalise our franchise and how DfT can learn from that process?

A quarter of TransPennine routes are also being suspended next week, in addition to the Avanti crisis. This is becoming a critical situation for Scotland and the north of England. Where does that leave the integrated rail plan? Lastly, what assessment have the Government made of the economic impact on the north of England and Scotland of Avanti and TransPennine scrapping their services?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I understand the challenges, particularly on that Glasgow Central train, which I travel on as well. All options are on the table for the discussions on 16 October as to how we will proceed, but information about those discussions is commercially sensitive at the moment.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement to the House. Given that ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, has pumped in a quarter of a million pounds to the Labour party, does she also call on Opposition Members to condemn these strikes? Those who have a lot to say should make clear their other interests, which I am not sure they have done so far.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend speaks from experience and makes an excellent point. I think all of us across this House want the same thing: for passengers to be sure that they can enjoy a safe, affordable and reliable train service. As to how we are moving forward, when 95% of train drivers are represented by ASLEF and the remaining train drivers are predominantly represented by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, any of us in this House with communication channels open to those unions could make the point that the way we will have a sustainable rail sector in future, with more passengers travelling by train, is for those passengers to be confident that those trains will be driven, whether or not it is a rest day.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

The Minister said that she would prefer passengers to have certainty, rather than uncertainty. I think we would all agree, but the only certainty for passengers at the moment is that they still cannot book a seat on Avanti services on virtually any weekend between now and November. When will the Government demand a legally binding plan—as they are entitled to do under the contract—to restore the timetable, and when will that proper timetable be restored?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I understand the challenge, but however we cut this cake, we need the same ingredients: we need train drivers to drive the trains. There is a finite number of qualified, trained train drivers who can drive those routes, and it takes on average two years to recruit and train a train driver. Avanti has a particular challenge because it only had the contract for 16 weeks before we, the Government, stepped in on 1 March. That is not an excuse—I am just pointing out the facts to Maria Eagle. That is what we are dealing with; that is the challenge that my Department, Avanti and, indeed, all train operators face. This challenge is not limited to just Avanti: it is affecting all train operators at the moment, which is why we are so focused on the solution.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

The service provided by Avanti on the west coast is incredibly important to my constituents in Rugby, especially as the railways are shifting towards being used more for leisure than for business commuting. Does the Minister agree that part of the solution to the problem is to get train drivers who work in a service that operates seven days a week to work to the same terms and conditions as workers in hospitality, health and care, and elsewhere who also serve the public at weekends?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Of course trains need to operate seven days a week, which is why the system of train drivers volunteering to work on those rest days is no longer sustainable. A 35-hour shift and volunteering to work rest days, while it has provided considerable extra income for train drivers, is no longer sustainable. That is exactly what we will tackle through the modernising workforce programme and Great British Railways.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

The Minister talks about partnership with Avanti. May I suggest to her that, if she looks at it objectively, that partnership is not working, and the best thing she could do is plan to get out of it? She should sack Avanti, which is not only not running services to Manchester—it has cut those services by two thirds—but, when it eventually gets passengers on to its trains, drops them off at unpersoned stations in an unsafe position. This is not just about running services: Avanti is a dreadful company, and should not continue with this franchise.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As I set out previously, Avanti has particular challenges that other train operating companies do not, in that it took over from Virgin and had 16 weeks before the pandemic hit. The very nature of training drivers requires close contact in a cab, which has prevented Avanti from being able to recruit and train the necessary number of drivers. Again, that is not an excuse; it is the reality of the situation.

I met with Avanti and the West Coast Partnership yesterday at the Women in Transport event, where we discussed the need to improve the current 12% level of women train drivers. When 51% of society is women, the train driving sector and the transport sector more widely are clearly missing out on incredible talent across this country. We are talking to Avanti about how they will recruit those train drivers, because whoever runs these trains, they do need to be driven.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

There is now, at best, one through train per day from Holyhead to London. Any travellers from north Wales who wish to go along the north Wales main line have to change once, or perhaps twice; in other words, the north Wales main line has been reduced to the status of a branch line. Whether that is the fault of Avanti—and I am bound to say that I do attribute a lot of blame to Avanti—it is an unacceptable state of affairs for the travelling public of north Wales, so can my hon. Friend give her best estimate as to when a decent train service will be restored to north Wales?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct: the service to north Wales is unacceptable. That is why the decision that will be taken on 16 October will bear in mind how swiftly we can improve that service to north Wales and, indeed, all the other stations that Avanti West Coast connects people to.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

Avanti West Coast is causing chaos for my constituents, who are still unable to book a seat on virtually any weekend between now and November. When I contacted the Secretary of State’s predecessor about this issue over the summer recess, his Department had the temerity to blame the disruption on unofficial strike action rather than on Avanti’s woeful failure to recruit new train drivers. Those claims have been rightly denounced by the rail unions as untrue. Will the Minister today commit to making a clean break with the failures of the past by refusing to reward failure and by stripping Avanti of its franchise unless immediate action is taken to restore the timetable?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

All options remain on the table, and the decision will take place on 16 October. I think I have already set out the acute challenges that Avanti faces and I make the point again that it takes, on average, two years to train a train driver. These things cannot be resolved overnight. A long-term programme is needed to recruit train drivers to the rail sector.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

I have previously expressed my concern that, having built up an extensive timetable to Lockerbie station, which is served by both Avanti and FirstGroup, passenger confidence has been completely undermined by the unreliability of services. TransPennine is part of FirstGroup, which is also part of the Avanti partnership. I do believe that some blame lies with First and the way in which it is managing these franchises. Does my hon. Friend agree that it urgently needs to not just get rid of the managing director of Avanti, but address its part in making sure that services are available and that passengers, particularly in a rural area in Scotland such as the one that I represent, can be confident in the reliability of services?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Absolutely. I, too, live in a rural area and recognise how important a safe, reliable and affordable rail service is for passengers, especially when they do not have other options. I reiterate that a decision will be taken on 16 October. All options remain on the table. There is no excuse for Avanti’s inability over recent years to recruit sufficient numbers of train drivers. However, we do have a finite number of train drivers in the UK, and so recruiting more train drivers must be our priority. The most important thing is to recruit more people into the transport sector. We can all play a part in that. There are fantastic careers and brilliant qualifications in the transport sector, as I learned yesterday at the women in transport event. My message to all parliamentarians is to work with me in the Department for Transport to convey the great opportunities and careers that are available in the transport sector and also for train drivers.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I declare an interest as vice-chair of the west coast main line all-party parliamentary group and as someone who spends a huge amount of my life on the west coast main line. If we follow the logic of the Minister’s argument that some of this comes down to staffing and the workforce, would she agree that the Department for Transport and Avanti have to move away from the anti-union rhetoric that was perpetuated so often by the former Secretary of State? We have heard today, in several contributions, Members talking nonsense about unofficial strikes. If she thinks that the workforce is the most important element here, how does that inflammatory language help the situation?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I certainly have not used inflammatory language. My husband is a member of the GMB union and I believe that my salary contributes every month to its upkeep.

On the west coast main line, 500,000 seats are still provided every week. Yes, we have seen a dramatic reduction, but I do agree that we need to work with all partners and all stakeholders to resolve this urgent situation for the benefit of passengers, to decarbonise the transport sector, to reduce emissions, to cut the congestion on our roads and to ensure that we have a sustainable, safe, affordable and reliable train service in the future. That is common sense.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I am grateful to the Minister for her update. I, too, met Avanti representatives last week. They told me that they had reduced the number of trains from Euston from nine to four an hour. My constituents are telling me that they are unable to get advance tickets more than three days before travel. Will the Minister take some practical steps with Avanti and, now that it has a core emergency timetable, ask that it release advance tickets further in advance— perhaps at least three or four days in advance of when people need to travel—so that constituents know that they can travel with some certainty?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend makes a brilliant point. I will ensure that the new Secretary of State hears that suggestion and that we work with Avanti to be able to provide those advance tickets, giving passengers that certainty as soon as possible.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

When just 53% of Avanti trains are arriving on time, it comes as no surprise that I have been inundated with complaints. I have lost count of the number of constituents who have been in touch with me really frustrated by their experience of Avanti. They talk of trains being cancelled, trains being delayed, and seats being double booked. Does the Minister think that the £4 million bonus that Avanti got for customer satisfaction and performance would perhaps have been better spent on driver recruitment and training?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Any performance fees that are being referred to relate to last year’s service, not this one.

Photo of Simon Fell Simon Fell Conservative, Barrow and Furness

As my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour well knows—she often travels on the same train as me between London and Cumbria—the quality and quantity of services have dropped significantly. These short-term cancellations are really affecting our constituents. They are missing their connections with Northern, which, by the way, is experiencing similar issues on its line. Whether these problems are down to unofficial strike action or problems with Avanti and Northern management, will my hon. Friend assure me that the new Secretary of State will be getting a grip on this issue so that our constituents do not have to live with this for much longer?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Absolutely. I understand the challenges, particularly on the Cumbrian coast line. I have spoken to passengers who have suffered the pain of having their last train cancelled. I for one would like to see that policy come to an end. That is why we have taken the difficult decision to reduce the timetable so that we can provide certainty and avoid people expecting a train to be running and then being told at the last minute that it will not run. That is in nobody’s best interests. On whether these are unofficial strikes, the reality is that, for something like 20 years, train drivers have been happy to work their rest days. The fact is that they are now no longer willing to do so, which has taken out of service around 40 of the 50 drivers who regularly work their rest days. We can all appreciate the immediate challenge that that has placed on Avanti, which, as I understand it, is the only train operating company to have endured such a harsh, urgent and immediate step by their train drivers.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Labour, Weaver Vale

Passengers are sick and tired of delays, cancellations, reduced timetables, and an inability to book tickets in advance. We have a bizarre situation where Avanti received £4 million as a reward for customer service. It is now time for the Minister and the new Secretary of State to intervene and remove the franchise from the company and put in place a publicly owned and publicly controlled franchise.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

So the hon. Gentleman says. I am not so convinced by what he says. There have been considerable benefits from the privatisation of the train sector. We have seen a doubling of passengers and many, many improvements. Nobody is saying that the current situation is acceptable. That is why we are looking at this and why all options remain on the table, but I am not quite as convinced as he might be about the solution.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I thank Navendu Mishra for tabling this urgent question. Even though Avanti has a reduced timetable, it has not provided reliability. It is still cancelling trains and it still will not take advance bookings. Whether it is ASLEF and its actions, which are not helpful, or the effect of covid and many drivers’ not coming back to work, my hon. Friend the Minister is quite right to acknowledge that Avanti’s system of running its business is the main aggravator. We must put out thanks from my constituents in Lichfield, who at least are able to use London Northwestern Railway, which after a shaky start is now providing a very reliable service every hour down to London, but what steps can the Government take, perhaps in October, to ensure that the position with Avanti does not remain as it is?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I agree with my hon. Friend that many train operators are providing a much better service than Avanti, and I am grateful that that is the case. We will learn from them and we will continue to speak to, challenge and probe Avanti about exactly how it will come to an agreement with its workers to ensure that we have sufficient train drivers to drive the trains as soon as possible. We recognise the importance of having a safe, affordable and reliable train service.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

My constituent Lucy contacted me this week to express her concerns. Trains to London have been reduced to one per hour and are regularly at full capacity, yet ticket costs keep rising. Some constituents say they have been unable to accept work or cannot visit family because of Avanti’s poor service. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable? If so, why are the Government considering renewing Avanti West Coast’s contract in October?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

We are considering all options, and all options remain on the table. Withdrawing Avanti’s contract is one of those options, but we must bear in mind all the implications of that. As I said earlier, we can cut this cake however we want, but ultimately we need the drivers to be driving the trains. That must be the absolute priority. One service an hour is completely unacceptable.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Across the west midlands and in my city of Coventry, commuters have faced a summer of nightmare travel disruptions, causing untold damage to the local economy. Commuters across Coventry deserve to be able to travel without facing delays caused by the Government’s inaction. When will the Minister finally hold the management team of Avanti West Coast to account for failing to provide an adequate service to commuters in Coventry?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I fear I am repeating myself. I have said consistently that those conversations, that probing and that challenge are happening right now across the Department and a decision will be taken on 16 October this year.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

The train service to Bangor in my constituency was never great, but now it is dire, with trains cancelled, trains late, trains packed, ticket prices sky-high and no reliable service to and from London. Visitors to north Wales are abandoning the train in Crewe and taking to their cars, and my constituents are driving all the way to London rather than taking the train. So much for Union connectivity—so much for green travel. Is it not clear to the Minister that Avanti West Coast should lose the franchise and be replaced with a public service as in other, more developed countries such as Germany?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

While I have deep sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and indeed with everybody who has endured the pain of an unacceptable, unreliable train service for far too long, I also want to point out that we are working with Avanti and all train operating companies, which have had a particularly difficult time during the pandemic. I agree that it is unacceptable that people should feel the need to drive all the way from north Wales to London, because that flies in the face of our decarbonisation targets, adds to congestion, increases emissions and, frankly, is not the most pleasurable way to travel across the country.

I for one thoroughly enjoy my train journey from my community down to London, and I want many more people across this country to travel by train. That is why we have taken the steps we have, not only to challenge Avanti and all train operating companies on their recruitment, their diversity, on improving the fact that only 12% of train drivers are women and the fact that the average age is approaching the average retirement age, but to relay to the public the advantages of travelling by train, on which I am sure he can agree with me.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

A number of times throughout this discussion, the Minister has agreed with hon. Members from across the House that Avanti is delivering a service that is simply not acceptable. Will she admit that her Department’s only logical step to improve that service must include removing the franchise from Avanti?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

While it is my job to answer the questions, my question to the hon. Gentleman would be: “Where are the drivers going to come from?” That is the challenge here. However we cut this cake, the ingredients are the same. We need drivers to drive the trains, and that is what we are focused on.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The Government seem to think that state ownership should not be necessary, but, as my hon. Friend Gavin Newlands pointed out, much of the UK’s railways are already in state ownership—the states of Germany, the Netherlands and, in the case of Avanti West Coast, Italy. Is it not time that the Government learned lessons from Scotland and followed the Scottish Government’s example by bringing the railway operators and any profits they might make back into public ownership?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The reality is that we, the state, are currently paying for the train service, because it is unsustainable for train operators to pay for it themselves. I will take deep interest in comparing and contrasting ScotRail with other train operating companies; if there are lessons to be learned, I welcome them. All options are on the table, and the decision will be made on 16 October about which option will best serve our passengers, who are the most important people in this discussion.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley and Eccles South

I want to highlight to the Minister the impact of Avanti’s cuts in service to one per hour from Manchester to London, and of passengers being unable to book at weekends. A young constituent of mine who is a wheelchair user was due to travel to London next Sunday. She is nominated for a Shaw Trust Disability Power 100 list award. She has had weeks of uncertainty and now she has to travel by coach and car. There will be many more people in that situation who need accessible transport. The Minister mentioned certainty, but there is no certainty in Avanti West Coast services or with this timetable. Will she and her Secretary of State now act, and recognise that Avanti has failed in the provision of rail services and that its contract should not be renewed?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I spoke with a member of Andy Burnham’s office yesterday at the Women in Transport event, along with Avanti and the West Coast Partnership members that were there. I have every sympathy; I am disappointed with the service and frustrated that the hon. Lady’s constituent has had to endure such a difficult journey. The solution is to have train drivers working.

Whether we call this an unofficial strike action or not, a system whereby drivers were willing to work their rest days for extra pay has worked for nigh on 20 years, and with almost immediate effect one train company, Avanti, has not been able to persuade its drivers to work their rest days, resulting in about 40 out of 50 drivers who usually work their rest days not being willing to work more than 35 hours. I think I am setting out the challenge very clearly. Whether the franchise is state owned or privately owned, the challenge remains: these trains need to be driven, safely, by people who are trained. It takes two years to train a train driver. That is the challenge.

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree

Today I think we have truly gone through the looking glass. We have heard from those on the Government Benches about unofficial strike action, but it is not unofficial, because the Trade Union Act 2016 makes sure that it is not. If Avanti thinks that it is, it has mechanisms to challenge it. The Minister has spoken about drivers working on their rest days, but the clue is in the title—it is a rest day, and there is no compulsion for a driver to do so. Does the Minister agree that the decision to award Avanti West Coast a £4 million bonus for operational performance, customer experience and,

“acting as a good and efficient operator”,

would have been better spent on training and recruiting the new drivers she keeps going on about? Is it not time that Avanti was stripped of this contract?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I reiterate the point that the decision on those awards is independent from Government, and was based on last year’s performance data.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

The Minister must understand that the problems at Avanti did not begin with the change to the timetable. Avanti has been a disaster for the communities on the west coast main line. It is not acceptable that we have just one train an hour from Greater Manchester to London; that we cannot book in advance; and that the cost of tickets is far more expensive than the equivalent on the east coast main line. Avanti has failed, so in October will the Minister look objectively at all the evidence and strip Avanti of this contract, because it has broken its deed and its word, which it gave to the Government when the contract was awarded?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Of course we will look at all the evidence. One service an hour from London Euston to Manchester is completely unacceptable. I agree with that; I think that everybody agrees with that.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

My hon. Friend Christian Matheson and I are due to meet the rail Minister next week to discuss the Chester to London line, so I hope whoever the new rail Minister is will honour that meeting. We have been asking for a meeting for six months, during which time the service has gone from terrible to non-existent. When I asked the previous rail Minister why in those circumstances Avanti would be granted a new contract, I was told that it was important to do so to ensure value for taxpayers and continuity of services for passengers. The question to the Minister is: how can we have continuity of services when we do not have any services?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will ensure that that meeting goes ahead as planned.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

One of my constituents has written to me to describe the chaos that she is experiencing. She travels on Avanti west coast to London for work on a fairly frequent basis. She explains that when trains are cancelled, particularly at short notice, the other trains are really busy. On one occasion she was on such a train. It was so busy that she could not get off to make her connection and she ended up going to London when she wanted to go to a completely different part of the country. Bearing in mind that level of chaos, why are the Government even considering renewing the contract with Avanti, and is it not time to bring our railways into public ownership?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am not convinced that bringing the railways into public ownership at this stage in the way that the hon. Lady has described will provide the solutions that passengers are looking for, and that is why we are going to look at all the evidence when making our decision on 16 October.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

As the MP for Glasgow Central, I know that the cancellations and lack of reliability from Avanti have had an impact on business, leisure, tourism and the many events that Glasgow hosts. People have to travel for longer and they have to go through Edinburgh, for goodness’ sake, which is a huge inconvenience and imposition. There is a particular difficulty for disabled people and those travelling with children when changing trains, so can the Minister tell us exactly why we have to wait until 16 October to get this sorted? Why can she not do more now?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Avanti’s decision to provide a reduced timetable was certainly part of the solution, although not a satisfactory one—far from it. I have said before that one train service an hour is not acceptable at all. I agree with the hon. Lady about disabled people and people travelling with children—I am a mum of four, and I remember when my girls were all under five what a challenge it was to travel by train on a good day. To endure delays and cancellations, and to be stuck on a platform with young children, or for people who are disabled, is doubly difficult. I have absolute sympathy with all rail passengers who have endured the trials and tribulations of delayed and cancelled trains. We feel the pain—I certainly feel the pain, because I am a frequent train passenger—which is why we are taking action to remedy this situation and provide passengers with confidence that they can be sure of a safe, reliable and affordable train service in future.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

The Minister has varied between apologising and criticising Avanti. The one thing that she has not mentioned is the need to tell Avanti something very clear: get round the negotiating table with ASLEF and the other unions and sort out the industrial relations problem. It is a lousy employer, and a bit of industrial peace would move the railways forward.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Again, it is common sense. That is already happening, which is why I am not calling for it. It needs to continue, and a solution needs to be found to provide an effective rail service—that is absolute common sense.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

Is it not absurd that the Government are pouring billions of pounds into companies owned by other countries’ Governments? Whatever the ownership of the companies, they are failing to deliver services but have been awarded multi-million-pound contracts by the Government. Avanti is supposed to run HS2. Should that really happen in the light of the catastrophic delivery failures, and will the Government look at a new operator for HS2?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I repeat that all options are on the table. The decisions on HS2 are a bit further away. As HS2 Minister, I can say that we are having those conversations. I am certainly speaking with Avanti and visiting all phases of HS2, both in development and in construction. Those conversations are live.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

The service is a disgrace. Does the Minister understand that there is an urgent need for a solution—not a solution in two years’ time—and that it would be quite unconscionable for this failing company to be re-awarded the franchise in October? May I just say that it is for the Government to grasp the urgency of this situation? If Avanti and no other operator can run this service, may I gently point out that the east coast main line, which was taken into public ownership, runs more efficiently and reliably, and the fares are cheaper?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The hon. Lady makes fair points on the comparisons with other train operators, and we will that take into consideration as we make the decision on 16 October. To reiterate, that is 16 October this year, not 2024—we are not waiting two years to make a decision.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

It is highly regrettable that the Minister has blamed workers in relation to this particular mess. May I recount a story from a constituent who is a lawyer who commutes to London? She could only get to London last week via Leeds at extra cost and extra time, which is an absolute disgrace. She said that that showed the Government’s disregard for the north. She has made a decision to stay in the north and reinvest her salary in the north, but apparently that does not matter. Is this the last-chance saloon for Avanti? Given that it is five weeks until 16 October, what will happen in the meantime? Are we going to have another five weeks of this mess?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Personally, I would say that the north is the best place to run a business and to live. I have considerable experience, having lived all my life in the north. On what we are doing now, Network Rail and Avanti are working to resolve the ticket issues so that they can provide those advance tickets, as I have mentioned. The decision on 16 October will be significant, which is why we need to take time to consider all the options, and to understand the evidence about which will provide the best solution for passengers, because that is the absolute priority.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My constituents, too, want to make trips for work or to visit family and friends, and they still cannot book a seat on virtually any weekend service for the next two months. News that the TransPennine Express is also reducing services seems to be yet more evidence of a managed decline of our railways under the Conservatives, so what guarantee can the Minister give the House and my constituents that, under the Government, they will have access to the services that they need, and when that will happen? The Government have known about the issues about months, so waiting again for months and months is just not good enough.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Minister of State (Department for Transport)

This Government are absolutely backing the rail sector, with more than £90 billion being invested in the integrated rail service. Great British Railways will seek to address many of these challenges, not least the modernisation of the workforce, which is absolutely necessary. I have absolutely not condemned the workers for this situation, but the fact remains that workers have been willing to work on their rest days for something like 20 years and they are no longer willing to do so, certainly with Avanti. We need to find a solution to that challenge, working with the unions but also recruiting more drivers and a more diverse set of drivers, and ensuring that we have drivers who are trained to safely, affordably and reliably operate the train service we all want—particularly this Conservative Government.