My Lords, the department meets Avanti West Coast regularly to discuss operational performance. This includes monitoring the delivery of its plans to restore and improve its services. From December, Avanti plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays, which is a significant step up from the around 180 daily services at present.
Will she accept that Avanti is incapable of running the skeleton service that it is supposed to provide at present? Will she accept that its prospects of increasing that service in the way that she outlined are pretty slim, given its record so far? Is there some ideological reason why those of us who are condemned to use the west coast main line cannot enjoy the same facilities as those who use the publicly run east coast main line? Could she ask the Rail Minister —perhaps she could tell us who this is—whether we can be provided with the same standard of service as those who are lucky enough to live on the east coast?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind words, and I am sorry only that I am not the Rail Minister, who is my honourable friend Huw Merriman in the other place. As noble Lords may know, he is the former chair of the Transport Committee, so he knows his onions. On Avanti, the noble Lord is right: as I have said many times, we are not content with the service provided. We are content that a plan is in place, and it is being scrutinised as it is being implemented. Avanti remains on probation, and the operator of last resort remains an option, of course.
My Lords, the Minister will recall that I praised the LNER east coast service last week, and I was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. The Minister agreed that the quality of staff was important, but she also said that nationalisation was not the solution to the problem on the west coast, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Snape. Has the Minister made an assessment of the management and provision of the services on both sides of the divide in the country to determine why a parallel service working on one side is managed far better by her department than a similar operator in the private sector? Is this due to poor investment, bad management or excessive dividend payments?
My Lords, the train network is extremely complicated, and it is not a homogenous system. That is why the performance of the train operating companies is subject to independent adjudication, which is really important. The Government will take their performance into consideration when they come to any future decisions.
My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interest as chairman of Transport for the North. If Avanti’s commitment to 264 services is not met, what does my noble friend imagine the department’s response will be, bearing in mind that it does not have very long to do so?
The Government are confident that those services will come on stream, as agreed with Avanti. The services form part of its recovery plan, which we are monitoring as times progress, as are the ORR and Network Rail’s programme management office. I would like Avanti to succeed, and we are giving it all the support to do so. But, if it does not, action will of course have to be taken.
Yes, I know that the noble Viscount is a great champion of freight. The west coast main line is a key corridor for rail freight, particularly between the deep seaports and the distribution hubs both in the Midlands and across the country. Indeed, the industry estimates that about 90% of all intermodal trains use the west coast main line for part of their journey—that is, 90,000 trains a year—so that is also great for emissions reduction. We want to keep rail freight moving. We understand that this can be challenging when there are engineering works, and we take that into consideration. Where there is strike action, we do our best to communicate with the freight sector to ensure that it can plan accordingly.
It is the turn of this side; noble Lords from other parties have had three questions on the trot.
Can the Minister be brought back to the here and now? There should have been a national strike tomorrow; it has been transferred to next week, which is the run-up to Remembrance Sunday. On Monday, there is rail strike and a Tube strike; on Tuesday, there are no tickets for sale for the north on Avanti trains; and on Wednesday, there is a national strike. I spoke to the manager of the Union Jack Club this morning, who told me that this is going to have devasting effects on bookings by people trying to come down for Remembrance Sunday. So what can the Government do to stop this indiscriminate guerrilla strike action that is bringing misery to hundreds of thousands of people at the very time of remembrance? This is a time when people want to remember the freedoms we got from people who died in the First and Second World Wars and other conflicts throughout the world: freedom to move, freedom to associate with each other and freedom to come to remembrances. These union barons must be held to account for at a whim changing these strikes to make it more difficult for people to travel at times when they need to travel—it has to stop.
Perhaps the noble Lord would like to cross the Floor.
The noble Lord is completely right: strikes are hugely disruptive to people who want to come to Remembrance Sunday and related events around that time, and to those who want to go to school or work. We remain committed to trying to resolve these strikes; we do not want them to continue. However, we must have an agile and modern workforce so that we can deliver a modern seven-day railway. If the unions stand in the way of that, we cannot the deliver the passenger services that are required.
My Lords, the performance of the operator on the west coast main line cannot be excused, but is it not also the case that there are severe capacity restraints on the west coast main line? It is Europe’s busiest mixed-use line, which means that it is hard to increase the number of passengers or freight in the long term. Does that not remind us of the importance of increasing capacity, which means continuing with the HS2 project that will not only increase speed but capacity, thereby relieving that line and two other main lines in the country?
My noble friend is absolutely right: there are capacity constraints on the west coast main line that impact both passengers and freight. It is also the case that the west coast main line is fairly old, and therefore engineering works are necessary; that caused some disruption between 22 and
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the promises made by Avanti to run three trains an hour from London to Birmingham have not been honoured, and, worse still, that it is now running only one train an hour between two of the country’s largest cities? Could she tell us why—despite making surely the understatement of the year that the performance of Avanti trains was dreadful—its contract was extended?
I am not entirely sure where the noble Lord gets those figures from, because my understanding is that on weekdays between 7 am and 9 am—for example, between Birmingham and London—the services are actually at pre-pandemic levels. Of course, there have been changes to the timetable at some other points, but that is very much down to changes in travel habits, such that the system needs to have a demand-led timetable so that we can ensure that people can travel when they need to.
If I were a nurse and decided to work only half my contracted hours and demanded to be paid my full salary, I would be rejected out of hand. Yet Avanti has essentially done this: it has provided less than half its service to some major cities, but it is still paid the standard contract fee. I ask the Minister: why are DfT contracts written so loosely that it is still entitled to that?
I think it is absolutely right, as I said earlier, that the performance is subject to independent adjudication. If there is any action to be taken by the DfT, we would follow the legal and contractual processes. We are aware that there is an opportunity to improve our contracting as we move forward and that is why we hope to move to passenger service contracts in due course to encourage competition and enable services to run as they should.