It seems that performance has improved enough for both Avanti West Coast and CrossCountry Trains have managed to retain their operations, and have been awarded new operating contracts.
Avanti West Coast (operated by a partnership of FirstGroup and Trenitalia) has a long-term contract which will enable them to deliver improved services for passengers, after dramatically reducing cancellations to as low as 1.1% over the past year. A long-term contract will allow the operator to plan, giving them the certainty they need to prepare advance timetables, roll out new train fleets and continue their work to improve services – benefitting passengers in both the short and long term.
This comes after the department placed Avanti West Coast on 2 consecutive short-term, 6-month contracts and ordered them to develop a recovery plan aimed at addressing poor performance on vital routes – including between Manchester, Birmingham and London.
Alongside the recovery plan which prioritised training new drivers, reducing reliance on rest day working and getting tickets on sale earlier, a recovery timetable was introduced which has seen services increase from 180 trains per day to 264 on weekdays – the highest level in over 2 years.
By the end of the first 6-month contract in March, Avanti had already made significant progress towards its recovery, with 40% more services being run and cancellations within Avanti’s control falling to 4.2%. Those arrangements were further extended to ensure these improvements would continue and passengers would feel confident in using the services again.
Since then, Avanti West Coast’s services have seen further improvements, with the Department for Transport reporting that cancellations have been below 3% since March 2023 – from a high of 13% in January 2023, 90% of trains arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time – an improvement from75% in December 2022
Additionally, the company has added over 100 additional drivers have been trained, along with passenger experience improvement – including the completion of the 11-carriage Pendolineo refresh.
Starting on 15 October 2023, Avanti West Coast’s new National Rail Contract will have a core term of 3 years and a maximum possible term of 9 years. After 3 years, the Transport Secretary can terminate the contract at any point with 3 months’ notice.
Meanwhile over in CrossCountry land
Cross Country Trains (Operated by Arriva UK Trains) has been granted a new National Rail Contract, with a core term of 4 years and a maximum possible term of 8 years. This commences on the 15th October 2023.
Whilst there are fewer promises in this one than with the Avanti contract, it will call for extra rolling stock to replace the High-Speed Trains that were recently retired, with modern equivalents.
It also calls for the refurbishment of existing Cross Country train fleets, and the introduction of direct daily services between Cardiff and Yorkshire, the North East and Edinburgh from December 2024.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said:
The routes Avanti West Coast operate provide vital connections, and passengers must feel confident that they can rely on the services to get them where they need to be at the right time.
Over the past year, short-term contracts were necessary to rebuild the timetable and reduce cancellations. Now Avanti are back on track, providing long-term certainty for both the operator and passengers will best ensure that improvements continue.
As well as working directly with the operator and local stakeholders on the recovery plan over the past year, the government continues to support the industry – including through setting a mandate – as it engages with unions to ensure we can take forward much-needed reform, including introducing a reliable 7 day a week service to secure the future of our railways. The transformation of Avanti’s performance over the past year demonstrates how, through working closely with government, setting out clear set goals and being incentivised to succeed, the private sector can deliver on our railways.
Avanti West Coast is in the process of accepting its new Hitachi train fleet – the Class 805 (Bi-Model Diesel/Overhead Electric) and Class 807 (Overhead Electric) trains. This should release several Super Voyager trains (Or Class 221 trains).
Given that CrossCountry is very much a Voyager-type operator (Class 220 and Class 221 with some modifications), in theory, providing costs can be agreed some trains should trickle through to CrossCountry to restore lost capacity in its fleet, now the HSTs have been withdrawn.
Although CrossCountry has not been pleasant to travel on, especially in the core corridors when overcrowding is the norm, rather than the exception.
We’ll have to see if both of these companies can live up to the demands of the network and the new demands placed on them by the contracts.
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