Avanti winning the wrong competition

When the railways were privatised a quarter of a century ago, Prime Minister John Major  said that it was to stimulate competition on the tracks. Now as the model they  used to break up the railways is falling apart, it seems the only competition is to be the worst train operator.
At the moment, it is Avanti which is the out and out leader, the Mo Farah of failing train operators, having sauntered past old favourites such as SouthEastern, Thameslink and others.
At the beginning of the summer, Avanti services started to deteriorate with many cancellations and several strike days. But now it has just got worse with Draconian cuts and with the prospect of more strikes, it seems the management has all but given up the ghost.
The service is a shadow of its former self. From Monday instead of three trains per hour from London to Manchester there is one, and the London to Birmingham route has been cut from four trains an hour to two. Steve Rotheram, Liverpool City Region’s mayor, has long complained about the ‘wholly inadequate’ hourly service between the capital and Liverpool, but now, in a letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps he says: ‘It is ironic, therefore, to see some cities facing catastrophic reductions in service that put them on a par with our own sub-optimal provision’.
To make matters worse, it is impossible to book any journey on Avanti trains until at least September 11, but even that date may be extended if there is no resolution to the chaos. So travellers risk standing on the whole journey between London and the North West or even Scotland. Essentially, the rail ‘company’ is telling people not to use its services. And that’s not just on the two strike days this week, Thursday and Friday. Football supporters who use the line to get to many big clubs in London, Liverpool and Manchester have been told to keep away this weekend and essentially, without being able to book, people are bound to use other ways of travelling round the country.
Avanti have made things worse for themselves and the passengers by not sorting out long term issues over the number of drivers they employ. Under British Rail, there was a deliberate policy of relying on ‘rest day working’ to staff the trains at weekends. This was voluntary as wages were higher – up to twice the hourly rate – and therefore there was usually enough ‘volunteers’. Many of the train companies created at privatisation bought out this system, increasing drivers wages but making weekends part of their normal schedule.
Avanti, along with several others, did not, so the present crisis has been created by the fact that normally they have 400 trains a week operated by drivers working on rest days, but given the hostile atmosphere on the railways caused by the failure of the government to come up with what they see as a reasonable pay rise, the drivers are voting with their feet. It’s not a strike or even unofficial action, but a refusal to work other than normal shifts for which they are well rewarded – the average driver is paid £60k annually, so now does not need the extra cash.
So you can blame them for not playing the game, but it is Avanti which should have sorted out this issue. The company employs 500 drivers when to run a full service without rest day working, it needs a 100 more, so unless this issue is resolved, disruption of service will continue well into the winter. And that’s even before the completely separate disputes with RMT.
What’s worse is that this crisis on the railways is going to cost you and me more money. Taxpayers currently  both pay for all the investment on the railways but also receive the  income from fares – and if there’s a reduced income, then the taxpayers’ contribution to investment has to go up.
Overseeing all this is Grant Shapps the Transport Secretary. Except like holidaymaking prime minister Johnson, he has been AWOL. He does not care much for the railways, preferring to get round in his personal plane, and a colleague was told once by his press office that ‘Grant does not DO railways’. Even though the train operators are under his control, he has repeatedly said ‘nothing to do with me guv’ and refused to meet the unions. Therefore, of the three parties involved – unions, operators and ministers – it is the latter who must bear most of the responsibility.
It’s not surprising that there have been calls for the Avanti franchise to be scrapped and thankfully it has been cut back from an original end date of 2030 to 2026, but given its performance, it may not survive that long. Other franchises have been taken in house by the government and thrived. It is noticeable – and embarrassing for a government obsessed with privatisation – that LNER, the East Coast Franchise running out of King’s Cross, which has been government run since the franchise collapsed in May 2018, has not had to make any cuts in services. Indeed, LNER, tops the league table of how well franchises have recovered from the pandemic, with passenger numbers nearly reaching pre-Covid numbers, while Avanti has languished at around 60 per cent.
There is therefore possible relief around the corner, when the endless Tory leadership battle is resolved and there is a new transport secretary, replacing Shapps. His predecessor Chris Grayling initiated a review –the usual tactic for clueless politicians – led by former BA boss Keith Williams, to examine the way that the railways should be run given that the franchise system did not seem to be coping with the ever increasing numbers. The report, published last year, suggested the re-creation of British Rail, to be known as Great British Railways. The railway will still remain split up, but at least the new body should have the power to sort out industrial relations.

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