West Coast Main Line: Services

– in the House of Commons at 2:26 pm on 15 December 2022.

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Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn 2:26, 15 December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered rail transport services for communities served by the West Coast Main Line.

I am grateful to those from both sides of the House who are here today for this important debate on the west coast main line. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. It is on a cross-party issue, and the irony is not lost on me that many Members are only here because they could not get a train back yesterday.

The west coast main line rail service has been the subject of some debate in this House already over recent months. Since Avanti became the franchise holder, taking over from Virgin in December 2019, services have been cut, cancellations are rife, staff morale is at rock bottom, and passengers and communities are suffering. Many have voiced their concerns and dissatisfaction with the service that Avanti has been running in questions, letters and conversations with Ministers. I have called this debate because this issue is important. It is important to our communities that we recognise and raise the issues we are all facing as a result of Avanti’s substandard service, and that our constituents know that we are working hard to keep the matter on the Government’s radar. My own community of Ynys Môn has been particularly badly hit, and I would like to give the House some background on why this matter is so important to my constituents.

Holyhead, as a port, has been a key point in the transport of mail from London to Ireland since at least the last quarter of the 16th century. In the early 1800s, the demand for faster delivery meant that mail started to divert via the port of Liverpool, which already had a rail link. It was the introduction of a new rail line in 1848 that saved Holyhead from becoming a backwater. From that point, Holyhead offered the fastest route for mail to Ireland. It was the speed of rail transportation that maintained Holyhead’s route as an important port and town. It remains the second busiest ro-ro port in the UK, with many passengers coming in by train and onward by ferry to and from Ireland.

As a terminus, the railway also brings Holyhead and the rest of Ynys Môn much-needed local employment. The island has one of the lowest GVAs—gross value added—in the UK, and Holyhead is home to some of the most deprived communities in Wales. Before rail was privatised, many local people worked for British Rail, either on the trains or as part of Sealink ferry services. Some are still employed by Avanti, Transport for Wales and Stena Line. Our local shops and services provide for passengers coming in on trains, bringing extra income into the town. Direct trains to London also offer an opportunity for local people growing up in rural north Wales to access the cultural and historic attractions of London, and experience the heady excitement of the big city.

So for Holyhead in particular, the railway is not just something that passes through the town. It has been part of the very fabric of life for 175 years. No one expected this way of life to suffer such a blow from the change of franchise. We all understand that our rail operators, including Avanti, went through very challenging times during the pandemic, and we understand that during it, it was necessary to cut the number of trains running at that time. The problem is that Avanti not only has not picked its game back up, but has allowed its services to deteriorate.

Our rail timetable has been shattered, with direct services between London and Holyhead hacked. Local ferry passenger numbers have been challenged by the lack of through train services from London. This has also stopped my constituents from accessing the cultural, political and historical collateral of the UK’s capital city. Those with mobility needs or travelling with children are particularly disadvantaged by cuts in direct services. Local people who commute from north Wales to other parts of the UK have been severely affected.

Some hon. Members will know from my recent Adjournment debate that Ynys Môn recently experienced another connectivity disaster, when the Welsh Government put in place an emergency closure on the Menai suspension bridge, having allowed the bridge to fall into disrepair. The bridge is one of only two physical links between the island and the mainland. As one constituent who moved to Anglesey to run his business told me,

“with the whole range of transport problems affecting Ynys Mon and the adjoining mainland I am starting to regret my decision to base the core of my business here and I suspect that many others share my view.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Trainline website claimed:

“It is possible to travel from Holyhead to London Euston without having to change trains. There are nine direct trains from Holyhead to London Euston each day.”

But in February this year, we had just one direct train running each way between Holyhead and London. When I wrote to Avanti to raise my concerns, its response was:

“We are currently working closely with Government, Network Rail and industry partners to update our timetable which we hope to move forward with in the next few weeks—this will include the reintroduction of further services to North Wales.”

In June, Avanti said that we would have six direct trains a day in north Wales. That did not materialise, and by August it was axing trains across the whole network and introduced a significantly reduced timetable. As Transport Focus put it,

“The primary aim of introducing a reduced timetable is to ensure a reliable service is delivered to passengers so they can travel with greater certainty without the frustration and inconvenience caused by short-notice cancellations.”

However, in the second half of this year, complaints that I received about Avanti’s rail service from both passengers and staff increased by over 600%. A recent report from Transport Focus found that 28% of Avanti passengers said that they had experienced a change, cancellation or delay to their journey. Just over four in 10 passengers rated Avanti’s communication about delays as good. A quarter of Avanti passengers said that the level of crowding was poor.

For months, Avanti’s own travel tracker has shown a plethora of delayed and cancelled trains, many of which it has blamed on staff shortages, broken down trains or trains diverted to cover previously cancelled services. Data from the Office of Road and Rail shows that, between July and September, even though it had already removed thousands of services from its schedules, less than half of Avanti West Coast trains ran on time. One in eight was cancelled. That is nearly twice as many cancellations as the UK average. Many of us will recognise the reality of the situation all too well. Travelling with Avanti has become a lottery. A good, pain-free, on-schedule journey is such a novelty that my team celebrate when it happens.

We have been told by Avanti West Coast that the service will return to pre-pandemic frequency. However, a look at its timetable released this week for 11 December to 20 May next year shows just five direct trains each way between Holyhead and London Monday to Saturday, and three on a Sunday. The timetable for today, sitting as it does immediately after a strike day, offers four direct trains from London to Holyhead, with three making the return journey. That was this morning. Even I will admit that five, four or even three direct trains is better than the one we had earlier this year, but planning journeys is still a nightmare. Although Avanti has apparently committed to give us reliable timetables six to eight weeks in advance of travel, when I looked earlier this week, its website still showed no train timetable for some dates in January.

What worries most of us now is not what it says on the timetable but what happens in reality. After months of listening to Avanti’s promises and then suffering when it fails to deliver, I do not view the timetable with a great deal of optimism. How has this come to pass? What has turned a once reasonably reliable train service into what we have today?

Like other operators, Avanti was impacted by the pandemic. It has also been impacted by the nationwide RMT strikes and actions by other unions. However, its problems largely stem from staffing issues. For years, train operators have used staff working overtime to keep all their services running. They have relied on workers doing extra shifts on their day off to help crew trains. Avanti is blaming its problems on staff withdrawing their support for this arrangement, but according to staff, Avanti’s actions since taking over the franchise have led to this point. It has cut staff without replacing them and reduced morale to such an extent that workers have stopped volunteering for extra shifts.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

On the hon. Lady’s point on staff, my understanding is that since Avanti took over the franchise, it has got rid of 175 catering roles. That is having an impact on the service provided on board in standard class as well as first class. The service that Avanti is providing is significantly worse than what Virgin, the previous franchise holder, provided.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

I thank the hon. Member for that important intervention. He makes a clear point about the services that are being axed. They affect not only the people using the transport but those who are trying to work on the trains and offer a good service.

Mike Whelan, the general secretary of ASLEF, said earlier this year that Avanti

“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.”

Avanti says that it is working hard to address the problems by recruiting more staff. It says that by the end of December it will have 100 more drivers than in April. But Avanti staff are deeply unhappy and sceptical, as anyone who travels regularly will know.

Many Avanti staff have been working on the route for years. They moved to Avanti from Virgin when the franchise was changed. They have experience of working on the route when it was not perfect but at least functional. Earlier this month, the RMT carried out a survey of Avanti staff that showed that 92% of respondents are either not very confident or have no confidence at all in Avanti’s ability to deliver the improvements that it has been told to make to its services. More than 80% agree that their working lives have got harder since Avanti took over, there are not enough staff on the route and Avanti is mismanaging the workforce.

Avanti’s own staff rated service to passengers at just 22 on a scale of zero to 100. One respondent stated:

“the staffing issues started way before July. Jobs haven’t been backfilled for a long time”.

Another said,

“staff shortages have been an issue for months…Poor management of key contracts have made working for Avanti unpleasant and embarrassing.”

The survey details that frontline staff are on the receiving end of a high level of abuse from frustrated passengers. They say that management is chaotic, there is not enough information about services, and there are too few staff and too many last-minute shift changes. They say they feel disrespected, undervalued, demotivated, stressed and angry.

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Independent, Delyn

My hon. Friend is making some very good points. Would she, for the record, agree that the staff who are there, despite feeling undervalued and demoralised, do a wonderful job in being cheerful, trying to be as upbeat as they can and delivering the best service they can in the face of such difficult conditions? The staff are doing their best in trying circumstances.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Personally, I am looking forward to getting on that train today. Some of these people are my friends—they light up my life—they are important and they are trying to do an important job in challenging times.

As one staff member said:

“The company has been run into the ground by Avanti…and the frontline are the ones taking the brunt of it. In my 15 years’ service I have never seen such a shambles.”

From the passenger perspective, one constituent recently wrote:

“There is no shortage of people who want to use trains;
ticketholders come from all walks of life and are prepared to pay for safe, comfortable and efficient journeys by rail. These services can and have been delivered at times but, overall, the Chester to Holyhead service is…a byword for rip-off rail.”

In October, despite requests from many of us to terminate the franchise, the Government granted Avanti an extension of six months to get its house in order. Two months on, we have a new timetable that no one, including the Avanti staff, believes is realistic, a service cancellation rate that has done nothing but increase over the past year, and a history of broken promises from Avanti. It has until March 2023 to sort this sorry mess out.

Avanti’s website calls the west coast main line:

“Britain’s premier long-distance railway, linking together towns and major cities to create a vital economic artery for the UK.”

It goes on to say that it is

“on a mission to run a railway that generates prosperity and pride, right across the nation…an iconic railway the country can be proud of”.

No one would be happier than me if it achieved that mission. My journey home takes four hours on a good day, and the thought of more miserable months waiting on cold platforms or rearranging meetings because of sudden service cancellations does not fill me with a warm glow of joy. So I am coming clean and admitting that, like so many of my constituents, I have a vested interest in Avanti getting it right.

Looking at the timetables for today, I have absolutely no idea what time I will get home to Holyhead tonight—or if at all. All I can see are the words in red: “Delayed”, “Delayed”, “Cancelled”, “Not available to buy” and “Delayed”. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the extension granted in October will be Avanti’s last chance, that it cannot keep blaming its failings on everything and everyone else and that, if we do not see significant improvements in service and a reliable road map to return the west coast main line to at least pre-pandemic levels by March, its franchise will be removed and the service put under the operator of last resort?

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:41, 15 December 2022

I declare an interest and refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate Virginia Crosbie on securing the debate. This is an issue that impacts hundreds of MPs, because the rail service that Avanti delivers connects us all.

I agree with the hon. Member’s closing remarks. If we were to think of a company that symbolised rip-off rail, Avanti would be the first to come to mind. It has a habit of blaming everyone when it comes to its failure. Poor management, expensive tickets, an unreliable service and trains that are not maintained or cleaned properly are all issues. I hope to cover some of them. I will not take too much of the House’s time.

My inbox is often full of people complaining about cancellations, uncertainty, lost business and students unable to go to their university or college because of the poor service provided by Avanti. It seems that one unifying factor around Avanti is that it is pretty much universally disliked. Whether passengers, businesses, staff members who work on its trains or those who supply the trains, everyone seems to have something to say about Avanti and it is almost always negative.

I know the Minister on a personal level and know that he is a hard-working Member of Parliament. A couple of weeks ago, I raised with him that TransPennine Express, which is experiencing similar problems on the network, is owned by FirstGroup, which owns 70% of the Avanti franchise. The Government should hold FirstGroup to account for the failures on Avanti, which are being replicated on TransPennine Express, because this is simply not good enough. It is not acceptable. I have tabled a number of written parliamentary questions on the subject. The fact is that Avanti has damaged the economy in my constituency as well as the wider north-west region.

In my intervention, I referred to the 175 catering roles that Avanti has axed, but there are even more problems when it comes to catering on trains. The equipment is often faulty, so passengers cannot pay with a card. Sometimes, they only take card and not cash—it depends on the train and what equipment there is.

The trains seem to be frequently understaffed. We have heard about the issues with drivers on Avanti. Having spoken to many people who work for Avanti West Coast, the reality is that senior management are viewed as toxic by members of staff. I prefer to travel by train rather than drive to London. My experience as a customer is almost all negative.

The debate is about west coast main line services, so I will not delve too much into ticket office closures, but my views are on record about ticket office closures and the support that those offices provide to people with mobility issues and those who might need extra help at a station. We need a wider debate next year about the value of ticket offices at railway stations.

A lot has been said about drivers and people who work on the trains, and I want to reference the “Justice for Cleaners” campaign. Last week I was outside the Department for Transport when shop stewards from the RMT handed in a letter to the Department regarding extremely low pay, long hours and the difficult jobs that cleaners do on the railway. Avanti does not have a good reputation. Those who have travelled on its trains will have seen that often they are not clean, they seem to be unhygienic and the toilets are in a terrible state.

During the pandemic, we all were happy to clap for cleaners and key workers, because they kept us safe and did a difficult job. Sadly, many cleaners across the world lost their lives during the pandemic because of the exposure they faced. Atalian Servest has the contract for Avanti West Coast. It is well known for low pay and long hours. A friend of mine—I would not like to name her—lives in my constituency, and I knew her son. Sadly he is not with us any more. She works as a cleaner on the railway, and I often bump into her on the journey from Westminster back to Stockport. We need to make sure that they get decent pay so that they do not have to rely on food banks. Research by the RMT shows that one in 10 railway cleaners are using food banks. One quarter of cleaners are skipping meals, and one in three are reliant on credit cards to survive. A shocking 84% of railway cleaners are struggling to make ends meet. Those figures are staggering.

A lot is said about collective bargaining, but if we look at the staffing model for the railways, we see that cleaners often tend to be some of the lowest-paid people. Inflation is at almost 11%, thanks to economic mismanagement by the Government, and those people are often on zero-hours contracts or low pay. We need to make sure that they are on a minimum of £15 an hour and get proper sick pay, travel facilities and a decent pension. It is not much to ask for in one of the richest economies in the world that people who clean our trains are paid a decent wage.

I noticed that earlier this week during Prime Minister’s questions, there was a question from a Conservative MP about the shocking state of the Avanti West Coast franchise. The Prime Minister said:

“My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the unacceptable deterioration in the quality of Avanti’s service.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 898.]

I am glad that the Prime Minister is aware of what is faced by the millions of people who have to travel on Avanti. I know that the Minister sent a comprehensive letter to MPs this afternoon. In my view, it does not go far enough, but I am grateful to him for that correspondence.

As I have the Minister’s attention, I highlight the fact that I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport on 29 November with a series of questions. I have not received a response. I have tabled a written question seeking a response, so I hope he can help me get a response to that letter.

I will finish on the point that the root cause of the failures with Avanti, but also with TransPennine Express and other rail companies, is privatisation. These firms prioritise profit extraction over public service and connectivity. Avanti has terrible customer service, and it prioritises profit extraction over fair pay for its staff and the people who work on its trains, such as cleaners. Public transport is a public service. Having good public transport links is excellent for our environment, air quality, connectivity, economic growth other such issues. We really do need better.

This might be a rare occasion when I entirely agree with a Member on the Government Benches, but I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Ynys Môn that Avanti should not be allowed to run the franchise beyond April next year. We need to make sure that the Government do not extend the contract and that the franchise goes back into public ownership, so that it is run for people and the planet, rather than for FirstGroup shareholders to feed off. I will finish there. I could say a lot more, and I apologise for stepping out earlier—please forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for securing this debate, and I look forward to the other contributions.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West 2:49, 15 December 2022

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie on securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee on facilitating it. I guess that the debate is of interest to a considerable number of Members of this House, and I suspect that the reason the Chamber is not fuller today is that a lot of them are in Euston station waiting to see whether they can get a train home. Indeed, to be absolutely frank, the only reason that I am here is that I had the foresight to bring my car on Sunday—I did not want to take my chances with Avanti today immediately before Christmas.

The west coast main line is one of the most important pieces of transport infrastructure in this country, as it links the capital with major population centres such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Importantly for my constituents, as my hon. Friend said, it also connects to the north Wales main line, which links the capital to north Wales towns and Holyhead, which is the principal ferry port to Ireland.

For my constituents, the west coast and north Wales main lines are a lifeline to the capital city and the major cities of the north-west and the midlands. North Wales is an extremely important holiday destination, so it is vital for the north Wales economy that there should be good, reliable and frequent links to London and other cities. Similarly, north Wales businesspeople and travellers are entitled to have those links to the capital.

Sadly, the rail network is currently beset by strikes, but that aside, north Wales has not enjoyed a decent train service for quite a long time. For many years, as we have heard, the franchise was operated by Virgin Trains and the service was generally regarded as good, reliable and efficient. In 2019, however, the franchise was granted to Avanti West Coast, which is a joint venture of FirstGroup and Trenitalia, as we have heard. Since then, matters have declined considerably. It is ironic that an Italian company is involved, because it used to be said that the only decent thing that Mussolini ever did was make the Italian trains run on time.

It is no exaggeration to say that Avanti has performed deplorably for much of the year, and nowhere has that performance been more lamentable than in north Wales. For much of the time since August, there has been, at best, only one through train a day between Holyhead and London. Travellers from stations across north Wales have been obliged to change trains once and sometimes twice at Chester and Crewe. The north Wales main line has been reduced to the status of an inefficient branch line.

Complaints are legion. I will give the House a flavour of some of the complaints that I have received from my constituents. One said:

“The current North Wales to London service is the worst I have known in the 30 years that I have used it”, and that that makes it “impossible” for them or their wife

“to hold UK-wide appointments which require our attendance at meetings in London.”

Another said that Avanti’s management of the west coast route is

“limiting our growth, because we can no longer rely on trains to and from London, as we did when Virgin ran the train line. As such, we have missed many business opportunities because we have had so many trains cancelled, resulting in our clients losing confidence in our service. We have also had return trains delayed, meaning we have incurred unnecessary expense and inconvenience as we have had to stay in hotels and lose valuable working hours the next day.”

I received one on Monday that said:

“I returned to Colwyn Bay on the 18:10 Avanti train from London Euston last Friday. The train consisted of only five coaches instead of the advertised 10 and effectively departed dangerously overloaded due to the number of passengers having to stand. The on-board seat booking system was absent, causing much confusion, no refreshment/buffet service available, and the service arrived over 20 minutes late to Colwyn Bay. In all, a very poor service, which, sadly, I have become accustomed to.”

I could regale the House with similar personal experiences, such as of my five-hour journey home last Friday that would normally take under three hours.

Those complaints are entirely justified when one looks at the empirical evidence. The website of the Office of Rail and Road reveals that the average rate of cancellations in Great Britain as a whole was 4.1% in the quarter from July to September 2022. However, in the same quarter, the rate of cancellations for Avanti West Coast was 12.1%—almost three times the national average. On punctuality, the percentage of recorded station stops arrived at on time for Great Britain as a whole was 67.7%; for Avanti, it was 38.8%—almost twice as bad.

As we have heard, Avanti’s operational problems have primarily been caused by a shortage of available drivers. It has pursued a business model of relying heavily on drivers undertaking overtime work as a matter of course. The short-sightedness of that approach is manifest in the dreadful service that north Wales rail passengers have endured, despite the best efforts of Avanti train staff, who I have no doubt are just as dispirited by the current situation as anyone else. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, I highly value the work of Avanti train staff, who are always cheerful and efficient; it is just that they are trying to do their best while working for a really inefficient operation.

In August, the vast majority of Avanti staff refused to work overtime, meaning that the company, instead of having the staff to run 400 services, had enough to run only 50. Avanti called this “unofficial strike action”. ASLEF disputes that, saying that drivers do not have to work overtime, and it is hard not to have some sympathy with that view. The fact is that if Avanti wanted to take on the franchise, it was up to the company to ensure that it could deliver on its obligations. Avanti says that all train operators rely on overtime to deliver services, but other, comparable train operators have not had the difficulties that it has experienced. For example, LNER, which runs the east coast franchise, has run a normal timetable since February. Avanti must therefore be incapable of cultivating good relations with its staff in such a way as to achieve an acceptable service.

Avanti formerly operated the franchise under an emergency recovery measures agreement, which fell due to be renewed on 16 October. Many of us fervently hoped that it would not be renewed; indeed, north Wales Conservative MPs wrote to the DFT urging it not to renew it. However, before the 16th, the Department announced that Avanti’s franchise would be extended to 1 April 2023 to assess whether the company could improve its services.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, Avanti has introduced a new timetable with effect from 11 December, although that timetable still represents a reduction in the normal levels of service. Given the strikes that we are currently enduring, it is probably too early to say whether the timetable will hold. However, it is ominous that, as of yesterday, ASLEF has been balloting its members on strike action over new rosters.

Frankly, Avanti’s stewardship of the west coast franchise has been nothing short of appalling. It has not provided, and it continues not to provide, a proper standard of service to passengers on the west coast main line, and that failure must not be ignored by the Government. I have had a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister today saying that the Government are working with Avanti to try to improve the service. My suspicion is that, with respect, he is flogging a dead horse, because I do not think that Avanti is capable of improvement.

The current situation is not just inconveniencing travellers; it is damaging the economy right across the country, not least in the part of the world I represent. It is impossible to see any good reason why Avanti should continue to operate the west coast franchise. At the earliest possible moment, the Government should remove the franchise from Avanti and seek a new operator for the west coast main line. Avanti has had its chance, and it has failed. There is no reason why passengers in north Wales or in any other part of the country should be expected to continue to endure the consequences of Avanti’s sheer incompetence.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 2:59, 15 December 2022

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie on securing this important debate today. Those of us who travel on this line sympathise with all the tales we have heard today and everything that she has said, because we are all suffering the same terrible journeys. As someone who has travelled pretty much every week from Wilmslow in my constituency to London since 2017, when I became the MP for the area, I have a wide knowledge of the service on which to draw and plenty of first-hand experience of the journey.

The west coast main line is one of the major routes in Great Britain, stretching 399 miles from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh via the west midlands and the north-west of England. The Department for Transport describes the west coast main line as

“one of our most important rail corridors.”

It links four of Britain’s biggest conurbations and serves all rail markets—inter-city, commuter, regional and freight—and there are 11 train operating companies using the line. However, I wish to keep my comments to the Manchester to London route and to Avanti. The train service between Wilmslow and London, on that Manchester to London line, used to be hourly, direct and took one hour and 50 minutes. Since the pandemic, the rise in industrial action and the start of Avanti operating the line, the service has gone shockingly downhill, ending now in the substandard service that we have today.

A few weeks ago, Bee Rowland, a rail traveller, caused a Twitter storm by posting a picture of her child whom she had stuffed in a luggage rack. I sympathised with her, because I had done exactly the same thing, only it was not a child that I had stuffed in the luggage rack—it was me, for the full two-hour journey. That was because people from several trains had had to cram into one train. Most people were standing, but, fortunately—I say fortunately, but it was ironically—I managed to squeeze into the travel rack and sat there for the full journey. Bee Rowland’s experience was on Grand Central, mine on Avanti.

The travelling public are being taken for fools. We no longer have a rail service; it is a rail sufferance. It is an unreliable system that has gone backwards to such an extent that it is probably as bad as British Rail used to be when it was the butt of every comedian’s joke. Trains might or might not arrive. There are delays, staff shortages, staff late for work, or just random cancellations.

I have been a lover of rail travel ever since I was young when I travelled everywhere on trains with my granddad, who started work on the railways at Lime Street station in Liverpool, aged 12, as a bag carrier, and stayed there until he retired. I am a railway lover and I have been brought up on trains, so to see the rail industry in such a mess makes me want to weep. It is being made worse, without doubt, by industrial action and the excessive strike action. It is as if the unions want to push these private train operating companies over the edge to make them fail.

The RMT’s latest act of sabotage—48-hour strikes between 13 December and 7 January, wiping £1.2 billion off the UK’s economy over Christmas—is hurting travellers, businesses and local communities. I am not excusing the management of these railway companies—certainly not—but between them and the unions, they will force people to travel by other means. It will be anything other than the trains. The people who will suffer the most will be those who work on the railways.

Since August 2022, Avanti has cut the number of trains between London, Euston and Manchester Piccadilly from one every 20 minutes to one an hour “until further notice”. It said that it had acted in the wake of industrial action

“to ensure a reliable service is delivered, so customers can travel with greater certainty.”

I am still waiting for that greater certainty, as are my constituents.

Life is difficult enough, but not to be able to get to work, to school, or to see families is unacceptable, especially at the prices that we pay to travel by train. Looking at the cancellation figures between 4 November 2021 to 12 November 2022, it appears that the average cancelled by Avanti was 5.5%, and those cancelled by other causes 6.8%—so, about 12% altogether. However, that is not the full story, because 33% of our trains have already been cancelled and so what we are saying is that 45% of trains have been cancelled. I often get to the station and find that even the guards do not know whether a train is coming or not. Then, I jump on the train to Crewe and perhaps on another one to Stafford and then I go on to London. Instead of a one hour 50 minute journey, it can take four and a half hours or even six hours, each way.

Let us look at the other side of the coin. Only last week, I had an insufferable journey to Crewe, only to find that a direct train from London had been put on at the last minute, which nobody knew about. So an empty train pulled into Crewe to give me the last leg of my journey to Wilmslow. We call these ghost trains; they are empty trains that travel up the line, pretending to get the numbers right, which they are not because nobody is on them. Sadly for its customers, Avanti West Coast had the fewest trains on time, at just 38.8%, making it the least punctual operator in the country. As for the part that runs through my patch, Avanti says that 87% of its trains from 16 October 2022 to 12 November 2022 were 15 minutes or more late. That is a huge amount that are unreliable.

So I guess there are a couple of messages for the Minister. Avanti has to get its house in order or lose its contract to somebody who can run a better rail service. We need to get our rail system back up and running. It has been knocked sideways during the lockdown and it is being battered now by industrial action, but we do not want any more excuses. We need to get our rail system back on track. So here is an idea to make our railway system reliable, regular and well-maintained: let us stop wasting those billions of pounds that are going into HS2 and get a proper train system working right across the country, locally and nationally, for all of the citizens of this country.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North 3:06, 15 December 2022

I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie on securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee on scheduling it.

Like so many colleagues here today, I am speaking on behalf of thousands of constituents who rely on their rail services, particularly the west coast main line, but are being thoroughly let down and deserve a far better service. As one of the major cities, and indeed the newest city, along the west coast main line, Milton Keynes is served by both Avanti West Coast and London Northwestern Railway. However, even if my constituents are lucky enough even to have a train turn up at all, the trains are often delayed, unreliable and overcrowded. I spend many a journey between Milton Keynes and London sat on the floor in between the carriages. It is a pretty miserable experience, apart from a few weeks ago when I was sitting in what is probably my usual spot on the floor just outside the toilet and I was joined by a bunch of lasses from Milton Keynes who were going to a Halloween party. We managed to strike up some conversation and they were good enough to share their cider. I had a nice journey down and arrived in London with a temporary tattoo, which is gone now. But we should not rely on generosity and community spirit to take the misery out of these journeys.

Many constituents have got in touch to share their poor experience, especially with Avanti West Coast. As Milton Keynes is one of the major community cities into London, my constituents need a punctual and reliable service to get into work, but often they just do not get one. The train service in Milton Keynes is often so bad that my constituents are resorting to driving to London stations such as Cockfosters, which is a 46-mile journey, and then taking the tube into London, rather than taking the train from Milton Keynes. In an extreme case, a constituent has shared that, due to the cancellation of two of the regular morning commuter services, they now pay more than £800 a month for a first-class ticket, just to guarantee that they will get a seat. Without paying for first class, they would face one of those overcrowded journeys that I end up on—and almost more often than not they are still paying for the privilege of being late.

Given Milton Keynes’s important and strategic location in the region, connected by rail to other major cities such as Birmingham and Manchester and well placed within that Oxford and Cambridge arc, any disruption in the rail service causes serious problems to my constituents’ everyday lives: not just difficulties in getting to work, but disruption and delays in visiting friends and family and getting to important appointments. In another case, a constituent has shared that they find the service offered by Avanti “abysmal”, with only one train an hour running from Birmingham and Manchester, down from three an hour. They have resorted to using the coach.

The problem is more than a lack of timing and reliable trains; there is also a lack of accessibility. Another constituent has been in touch, a wheelchair user who shared that, shockingly, the rail service is completely inaccessible to him on his own and often there are no staff available to help. In 2022, it is unacceptable that wheelchair users are left abandoned with no support to use the rail service.

The situation simply cannot continue. Not only does it impact my constituents, but it poses a risk to the growth and the economy of Milton Keynes as a whole. Year on year, Milton Keynes has consistently been ranked as one of the United Kingdom’s fastest-growing economies. In fact, a recent study named Milton Keynes as the fourth fastest-growing economy by the end of 2022, increasing year on year by 3.3% and adding £500 million to the local economy.

However, one of the major factors in that growth is our location and our transport connections. That is why huge local employers such as Santander move their headquarters there. But why would Santander continue to invest in our city, and why would talented people continue to choose to work, live and set up their businesses here when they cannot rely on the train arriving on time or with the capacity to take them on their journey?

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Department for Transport should conduct economic analysis of the damage that Avanti has caused to each constituency it serves? I tabled a written parliamentary question on that earlier this year, but the response from the Government was not helpful.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North

Far be it from me to direct my hon. Friend the Minister, but it does seem that the hon. Gentleman has an excellent point. What I assume he is getting at is that the growth of not just Milton Keynes’s economy, but economies around the country is being put at risk by these poor services. Potentially, there may be data out there that we can draw on, though I would not want to draw the Department’s resources too far from the clear focus on improving services, so I will leave that with the Minister to take forward.

The problem is that, while we recognise the importance of maintaining a good service on the line, we need to take things forward. We need to improve. I welcome the fact that the Government are putting pressure on Avanti to improve its services. We have heard in this debate about the short-term extension of the contract until April 2023—I note that there is no particular enthusiasm for anything more than a short-term extension at this point. That extension is not rewarding failure; it is a clear and urgent message to Avanti that it must improve its service and its performance or face losing the franchise.

I have spoken to Avanti recently. It is positive that it is getting the point because, importantly, it has apologised and accepted that its service is not good enough. I understand that changes are on the way, with nearly 100 additional drivers added to the service between April and December this year, so we could see slight but welcome improvements to the service. However, this is very early days and my constituents and I are incredibly wary. I urge the Government to continue to actively monitor the service on that line and, more importantly, to hold the company to account, so that if we do not see drastic improvements to the reliability, punctuality and frequency of the service, that contract is removed. If we do not make those changes, Milton Keynes and other stops along the west coast main line risk being left behind. With so many opportunities for growth and success coming to the new city of Milton Keynes, it would be a real tragedy if all those benefits were put at risk due to a failing train operator.

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Independent, Delyn 3:15, 15 December 2022

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Ben Everitt in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie on securing it. Earlier this year, following months of disruption to the rail service on the west coast main line, Avanti was put on notice to improve its service. As we have heard already from a great many Members, everyone who uses Avanti—including me, as I travel between the House and my Delyn constituency—knows that, sadly, it continues to fail to provide us with the service we deserve, or even one close to that.

But, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have to offer a little note of sympathy for Avanti. Over the past few months, the man who never met a microphone he didn’t like, Mick “Grinch”, the union boss stealing Christmas from millions of people, and his militant arrogance, continues to ensure major operational issues across the network, and untold misery caused by his love of striking, which apparently is a last resort—of course it is. That is after a two-year global pandemic, which saw family gatherings come to a grinding halt to try to control the virus. This is the first year when everything should finally be back to normal and we can be with our families again at Christmas, but RMT members have decided to cause untold misery to families and businesses. They should be utterly ashamed of themselves.

We have a settled situation of devolution in Wales, which means that for more than two decades the people of north Wales, and the people of Delyn, have grown used to being overlooked and underfunded. We just get on with it, and we do our best to cope with whatever challenges we face. Like all my colleagues in north Wales, many of whom we have already heard from, I am determined to secure the opportunities of the levelling-up agenda, which was at the heart of the UK Government’s manifesto. For so many across north Wales, levelling up is so much more than the investment, jobs, and opportunities it promises, but it is being undermined and made more difficult because of issues that we have heard so much about in this debate.

As my right hon. Friend Mr Jones said, the west coast main line is a critical piece of UK infrastructure. It is essential cross-border infrastructure linking England to north Wales and Scotland, as identified in Sir Peter Hendy’s connectivity review. The north Wales coast line runs from Holyhead via Chester to Crewe, where it joins the west coast main line and connects directly to London. It is also vital in connecting us to the island of Ireland, and in connecting Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom through the port of Holyhead, which is the UK’s second busiest roll-on roll-off port, and vital for the infrastructure of north Wales.

When the trains between Holyhead and Euston do run, which is relatively unusual in itself, there are daily frustrations, which we have heard about many times. These are things that aggravate me and other passengers: the shop is not stocked, the card machine does not work, the wi-fi does not work, the carriages are overcrowded, and people have to sit on the floor—tattoos or no tattoos, sitting on the floor is never good. Recently, people have at times been unable to book train tickets in advance, because they show as fully booked even when they are not. Many colleagues have rightly asked whether Avanti could run a bath, let alone a rail service—although I would never resort to that type of rhetoric.

Just one train per hour goes from London to Manchester, instead of three per hour, as it was before. There is one train a day from London to Chester, instead of an hourly service, and a shuttle service from Crewe to Holyhead instead of what used to be nine direct trains a day from Holyhead to London. It is astonishing.

I regularly meet and speak to Avanti’s regional management. It has been reassuring to hear that they are committed to improving services and that they admit that a lot of their promises have simply not been delivered. That has led to job losses, including in some of the most senior positions, but it is now time to deliver. A new timetable is out, with a massive amount of new services on it. That is very welcome, but trains running to the old timetable were constantly delayed, cancelled or unreliable, so I am baffled as to how Avanti will offer the extended service it has promised when the pared-back offering was so shambolic in the first place. Time will tell. I am certain that Avanti is watching this debate very closely, so I say again: it is time to deliver.

I have stayed out of these debates in the past. In the face of a lot of criticism from colleagues about the service, I have stayed pretty positive, because pressures on the train operating companies have been significant. I try to stay as reasonable as possible and be as patient as I can with them, but I am afraid that I have come to the limit of my patience. If things do not improve now, swiftly, I will be first in line to tell the Minister that the franchise should not be renewed any further, because it simply does not deliver.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy 3:20, 15 December 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie on securing this debate, which is of such importance to residents and businesses across north Wales and in my constituency. We had a Westminster Hall debate just a few weeks ago on the strategic importance of the west coast main line, and here we are again today. We seem to debate Avanti’s service to our constituents almost weekly; I am coming to the conclusion that if it were as regular as our debates, we would have one of the most reliable train services in the UK. Members across the House, representing constituencies all along the west coast main line, have made important contributions today about the impact on their communities of poor service performance on the line.

Aberconwy, which is so reliant on visitors and on our connections with the rest of the UK, has been similarly affected. On behalf of residents, communities and businesses throughout Aberconwy, I want to take the opportunity once again to state that Avanti’s service, particularly the service that it provides to north Wales, has been utterly unacceptable. Avanti’s implementation of an emergency timetable in August was one thing, but implementing a timetable that removed direct services between London and north Wales was, and remains, inexcusable. I share the sense of upset and inconvenience that so many local businesses and residents have expressed to me.

Reliable and affordable rail is vital to the prosperity of communities in Aberconwy and north Wales as a whole. Levelling up, which we talk about so much in this place, cannot succeed without good transport connectivity. Along the coast, to the west of my constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has worked tirelessly for three years, leading the campaign for an Anglesey freeport, an initiative that will create tens of thousands of jobs on Anglesey and across north Wales. Rail services are vital to the success of that project, every bit as much as investment in Aberconwy.

Our plan for Aberconwy highlights the importance of investing in tourism and promoting new business. Aberconwy boasts world-class visitor attractions. We are home to Conwy castle, a world heritage site that was recently confirmed as the most beautiful castle in Europe. We have Llandudno, the queen of the Welsh resorts. We have much of Eryri and some of the most stunning coastlines and landscapes to be found anywhere in the UK. Visitors from around the UK and around the world come to Aberconwy each year in their millions and make an invaluable contribution to our local economy, but for our economy to succeed, they need to get there. For north Wales to thrive as a visitor destination on the global stage, we need the reliable rail services that we have continually been denied.

I turn to new business. As the pandemic demonstrated so clearly, we in Aberconwy must diversify our local economy and reduce our reliance solely on tourism. Aberconwy is home to apparently limitless entrepreneurial instinct and talent—Llandudno was identified in Companies House data earlier this year as the start-up capital of the UK—but to attract new business investment and create more jobs across Aberconwy, we need reliable and convenient rail connections with the rest of the UK. Avanti is failing to deliver that service. The value that might be unlocked in Llandudno—for example, by bringing it within two and a half hours of London, which an electrified connection would achieve—would be extraordinary.

That is for the future, and I recognise that Avanti has implemented a new timetable this month to increase the number of direct services between north Wales and London—a timetable that has unfortunately been impacted by the strikes. I echo the calls of my right hon. Friend and neighbour Mr Jones: the reliability to which we are entitled is not being delivered, and if there is not a dramatic and marked improvement in services, the Government must move to terminate the franchise.

I would like to take this opportunity to repeat a call I have made several times in these debates: if or when the franchise is removed, its name must change to acknowledge the strategic importance of the north Wales coast main line. The relegation of the north Wales coast main line back in August to effectively that of a mere branch line indicates that the Government themselves have not yet recognised its importance, despite the work of Sir Peter Hendy in his connectivity review. I make this request once again to the Minister: will he agree to review the name of the franchise and make it the north Wales and west coast main line?

I must highlight the strategic importance of the west coast main line to one community in particular: the United Kingdom. With principal terminuses in London, Holyhead and Glasgow, the west coast main line helps to bind together the nations of Great Britain and to strengthen our familial, business and educational ties. It is indispensable to the strength of the Union between our nations and to the success of our great British economy. Sir Peter Hendy highlighted that in his connectivity review, identifying and singling out north Wales as an important point of investment to develop this all-important UK network.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to address the strikes, which have, ironically, influenced the attendance in the Chamber today, in terms of both those who would have wished to be here and those who wished to be elsewhere for Christmas. Throughout the pandemic, the UK Government injected £16 billion of UK taxpayers’ money into the railway network to keep it afloat as passenger numbers collapsed. Unlike so many of my constituents and millions of people throughout the UK, not one railway worker’s job was lost, despite the collapse in revenue. Not one worker was furloughed. Jobs were protected. Full salaries were protected. Pensions were protected. Each railway job cost hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money to protect.

The pandemic has changed the way that people travel and work, and passenger numbers have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. The network cannot thrive without reform, and rail workers should be united in safeguarding the long-term protection of their jobs by luring passengers back to the railway, not by taking their custom for granted. These strikes also disproportionately impact those who are in the lowest-paid jobs or provide vital public services. I thank those who do recognise that and are doing their best during this holiday season, many of whom I meet on the service. To strike at all is regrettable, and to strike at Christmas, when so many hospitality and retail businesses are trying to recover from the devastation of the pandemic is inexplicable to me and to them.

Rail has been at the heart of our nation’s history and progress. This line binds our Union together. It has brought wealth to our communities, and the service on it is key to our future. If you will pardon the pun, Mr Deputy Speaker, in north Wales we see these tracks converge. My final question to the Minister is this: will he seize his place in our nation’s history and secure the future of high-performing services on the north Wales and west coast main line for the benefit of us all?

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport) 3:29, 15 December 2022

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this afternoon’s timely debate. Virginia Crosbie started the debate powerfully, and I do not disagree with a word she said. In fact, I do not disagree with pretty much anything anyone said, other than the comments of Robin Millar about the Union and how it binds us all together. He failed at the last minute to get consensus across the Chamber. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn started well by talking about the importance of Holyhead not only to her local economy but to the wider Welsh economy, and how much Avanti’s terrible service has impacted that economy and her constituents.

On Monday, every single Avanti train leaving Glasgow for London was late, in most cases by at least half an hour. Five trains were more than an hour late. The passengers on those trains were actually the lucky ones. Anyone looking to travel in the afternoon from Scotland’s biggest city to England had a choice of two trains, both leaving late and arriving even later. Every other service was cancelled or terminated at Preston, which is a fine Lancashire city but about 237 miles from Euston. Lest any apologists for Avanti try to rely on the seasonal weather as an excuse, the first train on the previous Thursday was nearly two hours late arriving. The passengers on the last train arrived at Euston close to 1 am, more than six hours after they departed.

Avanti has set the west coast main line back decades, which is not hyperbole. I checked the British Rail timetables from 1982, 40 years ago, and the journey times that Avanti is now delivering almost daily are slower than the locomotives that were the backbone of the nationalised rail network in 1982.

Any criticism of Avanti or TransPennine Express in my speech is of upper management and executives, not the frontline staff, who, like everyone who has spoken in this debate, I have always found to be exemplary in their professionalism and courtesy. I am not just saying that because I am one of the many Members who will be seeking to get home on Avanti west coast main line services this evening. These services should be the Crown jewels of the British rail network, but instead they are straight out of the pound shop bargain bin, although not at a price to match.

TransPennine Express is just as bad as Avanti, and in some ways worse. On Monday it managed to run three of its seven timetabled services from Glasgow Central. Only one of four services made it to Manchester airport. Anyone looking to travel to Manchester after lunchtime was out of luck, as there were no trains at all. I put it to TransPennine Express’s chief executive at yesterday’s Transport Committee that, in the three weekdays prior to the strike action, only one of 12 scheduled trains made it from Glasgow to Manchester airport. That includes last Friday, when TransPennine Express managed a single train to Manchester before 5 am, after which there were zero services to England’s second biggest urban area from the biggest urban area in Scotland. It is almost as if all we have heard over the past 30 years about the benefits of rail privatisation and the wonders of the free market have been hot air and blether.

At least trade unions give advance notice that their actions will mean train cancellations and disruption, so travellers can make alternative arrangements and amend their plans. Avanti and other train operators can, and often do, wait until the very last minute before pulling the plug, leaving the trains that remain in service overcrowded, late and dirty, with the staff running them bearing the brunt of passenger frustration and anger.

It is clear from Avanti, TransPennine Express and the remaining privatised parts of the rail network that the system has completely and utterly broken down. The fragmentation of operators and network infrastructure has led to a system of little accountability and no cohesion, with long-term thinking left to outsiders and the occasional individual. Private operators have no incentive to provide a public service and every incentive to wring every penny out of its operations until the next rider on the gravy train takes over the contract. For months, the Government tried to maintain the line of laissez-faire non-intervention, before scuppering negotiations by adding conditions that they knew were guaranteed to send workers back to their trade union reps. We have a rail system in England that is edging closer and closer to collapse.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Member referenced the term “fragmentation” earlier, and Avanti often talks about the fact that it does not have enough drivers available for its services. If we had a unified public transport system that was designed to serve our communities and our planet rather than private rail operators, perhaps we could have a system where, if there was a shortage of drivers in one part of the country, they were licensed to drive trains in other parts of the country.

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

That seems to be an eminently sensible suggestion, which I hope Ministers can take up. GBR, which I will touch on later in my speech, seems to be no more, but I hope that the Government look at all the factors in our entire rail network in the round. That is a perfectly good suggestion.

Collectively, the privatised rail network is letting Scotland and the north of England down—I should also say north Wales; my apologies for not doing so. What is the economic impact on communities relying on the west coast line? How much badly needed growth in our regional and national economies is being sacrificed at the altar of free market gospel? What opportunities for developing freight and pushing a modal shift from road to rail are being lost and decarbonisation gains unrealised? How much more imbalanced is the UK economy becoming every day that the west coast line remains a shambles?

The Transport Committee heard from Avanti and TransPennine Express yesterday morning. I almost felt sorry for them trying to defend the indefensible—almost. I asked them if they thought that the travelling public believed that they should continue to operate train services. They at least had the good grace to dodge the question rather than admitting that passengers trying to use their services would probably just as soon see the Chuckle Brothers running them as TPE and Avanti. They at least have the excuse that they are only in it to make money. The UK Government have a wider responsibility.

Just six months ago, the then Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, told the House that his flagship project, Great British Railways, was how

“we are transforming the industry”.—[Official Report, 15 June 2022; Vol. 716, c. 318.]

The Chairman of Network Rail now says:

“I have stopped using those three words...it was clearly the invention of Boris Johnson, Andrew Gilligan and Grant Shapps”.

After all the fanfare, all the hype, a contest to decide its headquarters and the Transport Secretary of the time intervening to slap his name on the report that proposed it, GBR is dead in the water before it even began.

Given that the so-called Williams-Shapps review, as I suppose we should technically call it, stated clearly that GBR

“will be the single guiding mind and leader that the railways currently lack”, one has to ask the question: without GBR, who will be the single guiding mind? Where is the leadership? Perhaps the new Rail Minister, who I get on well with, will be that leading mind. We shall see. The rail network is too important to leave to a Transport Secretary who, in recent weeks, has been a “here today, gone tomorrow” figure. Yet without some kind of arm’s length entity running and controlling our railways, we are doomed to short-termism and a strategy designed to get us through to the end of the latest crisis. Bringing the west coast operations under direct public control, as the Scottish Government have with ScotRail, would be a first step towards a rational and forward-thinking model of ownership and operation.

Scotland’s railway operates at arm’s length from the Government through Transport Scotland, but allows for greater integration with the Government’s political objectives. Even without the devolution of Network Rail, which we have called for in this place many times, the Scottish Government—and, to be fair, previous Scottish Executives under Labour and the Liberal Democrats—have expanded and transformed rail in Scotland and are still going full steam ahead with a programme of electrification that will, within just over a decade, help to fully decarbonise Scotland’s railway.

As with any public service at a time of economic crisis, there will be issues, but the settlement of disputes with ASLEF and the RMT at ScotRail earlier this year shows that, once again, the apparently radical tactic of Ministers treating trade unions and workers as partners rather than mortal enemies benefits everyone. I commend that approach to Government Members, mainly because it appears to be working. However, we are lucky in Scotland to have decades-long political consensus on how our railway should develop and the powers to make those choices happen.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

I am listening with a great deal of interest to the hon. Member. As he said, there is a lot of consensus in the Chamber. I cannot resist the chance to ask him this: does he think that a strong, integrated, high-performing, decarbonised railway network would inevitably bring all parts of the United Kingdom closer together?

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

On the face of it, that sounds like a sensible suggestion, but where is that going to come from? There is no evidence from the Department for Transport and the UK Government of that actually happening. Scotland has decarbonised, or electrified, its railways twice as fast as the UK Government for more than 20 years now. There is no urgency about decarbonisation in the UK Government. About 16% of freight trains are still diesel because not enough of the network has been electrified, and that is down to this Government. So I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not see that happening any time soon. We are just getting on with it in Scotland.

I realise that my time is short, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall wrap up as quickly as I can. Transport for the North has seen its core budget slashed and projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail trimmed, cut, cancelled or abandoned. TfN has protested every time another proposal for rail in the north has been binned, but ultimately Westminster and Whitehall decide what is best for communities there, and how much cash should be spent there. How can the west coast line have infrastructure and service fit for the future when every penny of expenditure is decided by someone sitting at a desk half a mile from here, rather than by elected Members and civil servants on the ground? How can a line with 20 of its 400 miles south of Watford be fully realised when those along the other 380 miles are seen as irrelevant when it comes to decision making?

Meanwhile, the latest performance statistics show that the gold-plated Elizabeth line—complete with stations costing £695 million, £661 million and £634 million, and an overall price tag of £19 billion—sits at the top as by far the most punctual train operator in the country, and no wonder, given the amount of money that has been ploughed into it. That level of investment in rail in the rest of England would generate huge benefits for the economy outside London and the south-east, but, as we know, anywhere outside the M25 can go to the back of the queue when transport investment is being lined up.

The current crisis on the west coast line may be because of current events, but its origins lie in decades of metropolitan establishment disdain for what are still condescendingly called “the regions”. I am afraid that, unless and until England begins to radically change the way in which it makes decisions about transport policy—decisions that have implications way beyond its borders—the west coast line, like the rest of the rail network outside the M25, will atrophy and continue to be a hindrance rather than a boost to local and national economies. I urge the Secretary of State and his new team to roll up their sleeves like their counterparts in Scotland, get involved in the nitty-gritty rather than leaving it up to private corporations, and then begin the process of putting control over national assets such as the west coast line back into the hands of those who benefit most: the people and communities who rely on them.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:41, 15 December 2022

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this important debate, and I congratulate Virginia Crosbie on securing it. Given that the west coast main line is, in the words of the Minister’s own Department,

“one of our most important rail corridors”, it was crucial for the House to have the opportunity to discuss the state of the line’s services—or, more accurately, lack of services—on this Government’s watch.

While there are numerous challenges across the line, as we have heard today from one Member after another, the bulk of the issues faced by passengers comes from just two operators. Let us look at suspect No. 1, Avanti West Coast, with 33% of services running on time. That is its current record, and it means two thirds of passengers being left out in the cold on platforms—two thirds of passengers who are late for their commitments or, even worse, never make them; two thirds of passengers who have been let down by Avanti’s shocking rail services. Instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of these operators, the Government have rewarded Avanti’s ongoing failures with a new contract extension, much to the consternation of Conservative Members. That contract was paid for out of the pockets of the very passengers who are being let down by Avanti, again and again.

Figures show that, last year alone, £12 million in dividends was paid to Avanti, the country’s worst-performing operator. Why is that? Why are the Government prepared to make hard-working passengers pay for a service that is delayed or cancelled almost as often as it is on time? One would be forgiven for thinking that having removed thousands of services from its schedules in August, reducing the number of trains between Euston and Manchester Piccadilly from one every 20 minutes to one every hour, Avanti would be capable of producing a more reliable network. Sadly, even expecting that minimal level of service has been wishful thinking. Instead, those who rely on the busiest main line in the country face the reality that one in every eight Avanti west coast trains are cancelled. It is utterly absurd that millions of people, let alone numerous local businesses, cannot rely on these services.

Local metro Mayors have repeatedly raised concerns with the Government about the devastating impact the rail chaos is having on the northern economy, cutting people off from jobs, cutting businesses off from opportunities and cutting towns off from investment. Rewarding rail operators that obstruct northern growth is a far cry from the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which promised to better connect our towns and cities. The Government’s willingness to reward failure appears to be the common policy choice for west coast main line operating companies.

That brings us on to suspect No. 2: TransPennine Express. Six years ago, TransPennine Express blamed staff shortages, rest day working and driver recruitment for its failing services. Today, it is peddling the same old tired excuses. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Government plan to reward it with an eight-year contract in May. Some may be overly generous and say that the Government are incapable of recognising failure, but when we see how they are managing our public services across the board—from our health services and our schools to our borders—it is clear that they are simply doubling down on their failures and are happy to leave hard-working members of the public to pay the price. The Government have come up with a litany of excuses on behalf of west coast main line operating companies—excuses that do little to reassure those impacted by shambolic services.

Instead of making excuses, the Government should be looking at operators who are getting it right. On the east coast main line, as was explained earlier, more services are being delivered on time, with fewer cancellations. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that Britain’s rail infrastructure rivals that of our global partners. Instead, because of years of Tory failure to properly invest in our network, they have left our country with a second-rate infrastructure and rail services in crisis. To build the rail network that Britain needs, if the Government are not willing to strip franchises, they must at the very least place failing operators on a binding remedial plan to restore services for the British public, with clear penalties that discipline failure, not reward it. The new Rail Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Transport, Huw Merriman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, especially in his previous role as Chair of the Transport Committee—has himself admitted that he absolutely sees the urgency of the current situation. If that is the case, why is he not taking urgent, decisive action?

Perhaps now would be a good time for the Minister to also come clean on whether the Transport Secretary is blocking an offer on rest day working that could stabilise rail services in the short term. The spokesman for the SNP, Gavin Newlands, highlighted how the Transport Secretary, at the very last minute, torpedoed talks and an agreement that would have prevented strikes, but we shall leave that to debate another day.

The Government have demonstrated time and time again that they cannot be trusted to follow through on their promises, and now Avanti is following suit.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am often confused, because the Department for Transport often comes across as the public relations department for private rail operators, rather than as a Government Department resolving disputes and their root causes. Does my hon. Friend feel the same?

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend for that invaluable point. That is the central point: the Government must work for the people who have elected us, rather than the operators themselves. We owe it to the British people to ensure that they have world-class, quality rail services.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the public relations arm of the unions on the Opposition Benches would do a better job?

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

In the last few months the Labour party have called again and again on Transport Secretaries—we are on our third one, and I have faced one Rail Minister after another and hope that the incumbent will be in his position for a lot longer—to get around the table to resolve these issues. If they had, they would have been long resolved. As was exposed by The Daily Telegraph, along with other media, had it not been for the Transport Secretary torpedoing the talks between the rail unions and operators at the last minute by introducing another condition on driver-only trains, the British people would not have had to face train strike action.

In November Avanti promised a full timetable for December, but managed only a 40% increase in services. We have heard cross-party complaints. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn eloquently explained Avanti’s repeated broken promises and rip-off rail, as she termed it. She said that Avanti’s services have deteriorated even more than before. We have heard about the failures in staff shortages, recruitment and morale—comments underpinned by the ASLEF rail union general secretary, Mick Whelan. This must be the last chance saloon before it is stripped of its franchise and put under the operator of last resort.

My hon. Friend Navendu Mishra spoke about the damage to Stockport’s economy and the region, and how catering roles had been cut significantly. He spoke eloquently about the RMT’s “Justice for Cleaners” campaign and how it is unacceptable that so many hard-working rail workers who kept our country moving during the pandemic are now relying on food banks. Shockingly, 84% of rail workers are struggling to make ends meet. He described how the privatised, fragmented franchise model has failed us.

Mr Jones said that he came here by car because he could not rely on the rail services. He spoke about how since 2019, Avanti has operated deplorably and is incapable of building good relations with its staff. He said that north Wales Conservative MPs wrote to the Minister to ask him not to renew Avanti’s franchise. He laments that the Minister says that he is working with Avanti, but he may be flogging a dead horse.

Esther McVey spoke with considerable experience about how we are all suffering the same fate, especially given that she is a frequent user of this service. She said that, sometimes, not even the guards know whether a train is coming. Ben Everitt spoke about how his constituents are being thoroughly let down. Appallingly, he often has to sit on the floor in his usual spot next to the toilets. He mentioned the accessibility problems faced by disabled passengers.

Rob Roberts spoke about how levelling up is being undermined by the consistent rail fiasco. Robin Millar saw fit to make biting interventions, but none the less he spoke about the importance of the line for England, Scotland, and Wales and how we seem to debate poor services on the west coast mainline on a weekly basis—more reliable than Avanti’s current services.

When can we expect Avanti to deliver a full service for the north? Will it finally be stripped of the franchise? Finally, on TransPennine Express, can the Minister reassure the House that, given its record of failure, its contract will not be renewed for a further eight years? In the run-up to Christmas, people should be spending time with family and friends, not wasting time on platforms waiting for trains that never turn up. The Government need finally to get a grip.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:54, 15 December 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie for securing this important debate on rail transport services to the communities served by the west coast main line. She is a doughty campaigner and advocate for train services in her area. In my short tenure, we have spoken many times, and I know that we will speak more.

I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate, who were my right hon. Friends the Members for Tatton (Esther McVey) and for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Delyn (Rob Roberts), and not forgetting Navendu Mishra and my shadow colleagues the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi). I think that I have remembered everybody.

May I start by empathising with all my colleagues and their constituents for the challenges they have all faced on the west coast main line service? I am very sorry about the situation and am determined to see it turned around. I will explain how we will do that, but I owe it to those who have taken part in the debate to explain why the service levels have deteriorated so sharply.

Colleagues whom I have spoken to about this matter in recent weeks have told me that, prior to the summer, the service had been holding up relatively well. Indeed, between 9 January and 1 May, 3% of cancellations were attributed to Avanti. After the end of July, the figure rose to 25%, which is clearly unacceptable. The reason for such a dramatic deterioration can be traced back to the decision on 30 July by many drivers not to work beyond their contracted hours. Let me put that into context and perhaps explain why that may have happened.

A two-year qualified Avanti train driver is paid almost £67,500 and typically works 35 hours over three to four days. To ensure that the railways can operate over a seven-day period, the industry has relied on drivers working additional hours during their rest days. That, in my view—it would also appear to be the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West—has never been a satisfactory means to run our railway, as it relies on good will and means that a train operator cannot put its roster together without drivers volunteering.

On 30 July, as I said, things changed. Avanti experienced an immediate and near total cessation of drivers volunteering to work passenger trains on rest days. More than 90% of drivers who had previously volunteered to work overtime informed Avanti that they would no longer do so, which would not occur without some level of union organisation. That left Avanti unable to resource its timetable and, in the immediate term, resulted in the significant short-notice cancellations that right hon. and hon. Members have described. Avanti therefore reduced its timetable in response to the withdrawal of rest-day working. Although highly disruptive, it gave passengers a chance to try to make alternative plans. That approach reduced cancellations from about 25% of the service in late-July and August to about 5% this month.

May I now look more towards the future and be more positive as to what we are seeking to deliver? Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn touched on this in her speech. The Department has been working with Avanti to overcome the operational issues. Agreed steps include almost 100 additional drivers entering service, extra trains on its key routes and extended booking options. Avanti is now operating a seven trains per hour timetable amounting to 264 daily train services on weekdays, which is a significant step up from the 180 daily services previously offered during the last six-month period, and more than those offered before the cessation of drivers volunteering to work rest days. Importantly—this is the really important part—the services are not dependent on rest-day working. That is good for Avanti, because it allows the company to put a roster together seven days a week, and it is seemingly good for the 90% of drivers who decided over the summer that they did not wish to work beyond their contracted hours. This timetable change represents an opportunity to put in place a long-term timetable base and to return to the extended booking horizons that passengers rightly expect.

I will touch on one point from the hon. Member for Stockport about catering services. I do not recognise those exact figures, but I will write to him. I have heard many stories where the catering services and the on-board service have just not been good enough, and within that we look to turn it around. He also touched on route knowledge and transferring between operators—a point with which the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North agreed. We completely concur; it takes months of route knowledge to get a driver to be able to travel a route safely.

The Office of Rail and Road and Network Rail have reviewed Avanti’s plan and are supportive of the proposition, noting that its full and successful delivery requires agreement with trade unions. The Department is monitoring Avanti’s delivery and holding the company to account as appropriate. The new timetable started on Sunday 11 December—Sunday just gone. Alas, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, we are now in a further period of national industrial action, so it may take time to assess fully the performance of the new timetable. I put on record that I am grateful to all the staff at Avanti who have allowed us to introduce this new timetable.

Many hon. and right hon. Members have inquired about Avanti’s contract extension. On 7 October this year, a short-term contract was entered into with the incumbent operator. The contract extends the delivery of the West Coast Partnership and Avanti West Coast business for six months until 1 April 2023. This gives Avanti a clear opportunity to improve its services to the standards that we and the public expect. The Government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a national rail contract for consideration in relation to the route, alongside preparations by the operator of last resort, should it become necessary for the operator to step in at the end of the extension period.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

Can the Minister say in percentage terms what his expectation is for Avanti being able to deliver a full timetable by the end of March?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I cannot, unfortunately, because as things stand we have industrial action. I would be unable to determine even what the service will be like into the first week of January, because there is an expectation when national industrial action takes place that only 20% of services can run, and the day after—a day like today—only 65% can run. Until that industrial action comes down, which I will touch on, I cannot give my right hon. Friend that assurance at all. I call on all parties in this House to call for industrial action to come down.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

I fully understand that we have national rail strikes, but putting that to one side, and focusing on the efforts that Avanti is making and the work that the Minister’s Department is doing, what is his expectation in percentage terms that Avanti will deliver a full timetable?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My right hon. Friend is experienced in this place, and he will perhaps be aware that I cannot give a percentage. All I can say is that the rail regulator and Network Rail’s project management office have reviewed the recovery plan, and they are content, while recognising the challenges that the operator faces, that matters within Avanti’s control look to be within its control, and therefore it should be able to roll the timetable out. Indeed, with 100 extra staff and not working on rest-day working practices, Avanti should be confident, and I am confident as well, but I cannot give him a percentage figure, I am afraid; I can just give him my optimism.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will not, because I want to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North and for Delyn called for the decision to award a short contract to have a “keep options open” status, and they are right to say that. An extension to the contract at this stage will not preclude transferring the contract to the operator of last resort at the end of the extension term.

I will respond to what the hon. Member for Stockport said in exchanges with the hon. Member for Slough, who then brought up the TransPennine Express franchise. I was asked specifically why the Secretary of State was blocking an offer to resolve issues at TPE. I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Stockport that the Secretary of State signed off an offer for rest-day working to be put back to ASLEF on TPE, because that rest-day working agreement was not extended at ASLEF’s request at the end of last year. That offer was made, so he will be pleased by the Secretary of State’s input, but it was rejected by ASLEF despite being equally the most generous at time and a half. I will work on the basis that he will call for ASLEF to take a refreshed view on that situation.

That leads me nicely on to workforce reform; my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy both touched on industrial action. The way that passengers use the railway has changed. With more people working at home, we need to ensure that rail is put on a sustainable footing. The railway is losing up to £175 million of revenue each month as a result of fewer passengers post pandemic. That cannot continue. Passengers rightly expect a regular, reliable service seven days a week, but as we have found with Avanti, current shift patterns and voluntary weekend working for railway staff make that vision almost impossible.

Getting stuck in endless disputes will not solve any of that, or bring back the passengers that the railway so badly needs. The only solution is for everyone to come together and agree a new way forward. Contrary to what has been said, the Secretary of State and I have met the trade unions and heard their concerns. We helped to facilitate a fair offer that delivers a pay increase more generous than those in the private sector are gaining and that guarantees no compulsory redundancies. More than a third of RMT members voted to accept Network Rail’s proposal, despite being instructed not to. There is clearly an appetite among workers to strike a deal and I welcome today’s decision by the Transport Salaried Staffs Association—the second-largest union—to do just that. We urge the RMT to reconsider and to return to the negotiating table with the employers.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild a world-leading network. The result will be a thriving rail industry that continues to support Britain’s economy and society for generations to come. The hon. Member for Stockport urged me, through the hon. Member for Slough, to get involved. I can tell him that after this debate, I will be sitting down with Mick Lynch from the RMT and the employers to try to facilitate some form of agreement.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister is being generous in giving way. On his point about the workforce, I encourage him to comment on low pay, zero hours and the treatment of cleaning contractors who work on the railway. Inflation is at almost 11% and they deserve fair pay and a decent pension.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will look into that and get back to the hon. Gentleman, because the stories that he shared need investigating. My constituent, who is also on a zero-hours contract, is concerned because every day that the trade unions go on strike on the railways, she loses her wages. She contrasted her wages with some of those taking strike action. I hope that we can work together in that spirit of compromise.

It is vital that we invest in infrastructure in the long term. The Department is investing £54 million to improve the power supply on the west coast main line at Bushey near Watford, which will create additional reliability and support the introduction of new bi-mode rolling stock for use on partially non-electrified routes, such as those in north Wales. In control period 7 between 2024 and 2029, we will invest more than £44 billion in the existing rail network to support Network Rail’s operations, maintenance and renewal activity. Network Rail’s business planning processes for control period 7 will focus on how the railway can contribute to long-term economic growth; support levelling up and connectivity; meet customers’ needs; and deliver financial sustainability.

As all right hon. and hon. Members have said, the west coast main line is critical to the national network today, but it is also important to the future of the railways. For example, on completion of High Speed 2 phase 2a, new HS2 trains will join the existing west coast main line to create direct services to places including Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Carlisle and Glasgow.

Turning to the name change, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy has made his pitch. All I can say is that, with a name such as mine, I am very much attracted to the idea, although I am sorry to say that my family came from south Wales rather than north Wales. However, that will not hold back the appetite for work.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

I thank the Minister; he is being very generous with his time, and I shall be brief. The reason for the name change is not simply to change the name; it is to reflect the strategic importance of north Wales to the integration of the United Kingdom and everything that flows from that. Does he accept that?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I do, and I accept that we are not talking gimmicks here; we are talking about detailed descriptions of what the line actually does, but also about what it can do to enhance the north Wales economy and community. I absolutely do get that.

To conclude, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and all right hon. and hon. Members for contributing to this important debate. Passengers on the west coast main line have had a torrid time, and we owe it to them to deliver a vastly improved service. The additional drivers, the move away from voluntary working and the new timetable afford the opportunity to turn matters around. I am determined to play my part. I expect Avanti, the unions and everyone connected with this to join me and ensure that this line delivers once again.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

This must be a Christmas miracle. We have had a debate on the west coast main line, and not only was it not cancelled at short notice, but it has not even run late. A miracle indeed! The final word goes to Virginia Crosbie.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn 4:11, 15 December 2022

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank everyone who participated in the debate, everyone in all parties who signed my Backbench Business debate form, and the Backbench Business Committee for supporting this important debate on the west coast main line.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. I hope that he has heard the message loud and clear. All our constituents deserve a rail service that is not reliant on rest-day working, volunteering and good will. Our railways must work seven days a week. It is vital that the Department for Transport monitors Avanti’s delivery and holds Avanti to account.

We need a modern railway where passengers get a reliable timetable, no matter when they travel on Avanti. We need to improve our railways, and we need to attract more passengers so that the industry is on a sound footing going forward. Our constituents deserve to have the service that they pay for and that they expect.

To summarise, it is clear that Avanti offers an appalling service to our constituents. I do not believe that it can turn the service around. For the record, I believe—to use the words of my right hon. Friend Mr Jones—that the Government are flogging a dead horse.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered rail transport services for communities served by the West Coast Main Line.