For just a few brief weeks this spring, I felt that Avanti West Coast (AWC), North Wales’s provider of intercity train services, had turned the corner.
After a year of execrable performance by AWC, when my constituency email inbox was clogged with complaints about cancelled services and an almost complete absence of through trains to London, it seemed that the company was – how might I put it? – back on track.
In August 2022, nearly 25 percent of AWC services were cancelled. By March this year, that figure had reduced to 4.2 percent. Train services increased from 180 per day to 264 on weekdays. Over 100 additional drivers were recruited, reducing the company’s reliance on overtime working.
Such was the improvement that, on 20th March, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced that AWC’s contract had been extended to October 2023. Though I had long been a critic of AWC, calling for the company’s franchise to be terminated, I had to accept that the improvements were real. Through trains to London once again featured on the schedule and the complaints from constituents had abated. As a regular user myself, I accepted that things were considerably better.
Sadly, however, it would appear that AWC’s improvement is still fragile. On 13th June, the company issued an “operational update” announcing that four weekday services were being removed from the North Wales route. Perplexingly, the reason given for the decision was “to enable us to run a more reliable service for our customers” and to minimise unplanned cancellations. AWC went on to explain that the cuts in services were necessitated by annual leave agreements, engineering works and ongoing industrial disputes.
Two days later, on 15th June, I and a trainload of other passengers on the 09:02 service from Euston to Holyhead experienced AWC’s “more reliable service” first-hand. Shortly before arriving at Crewe, the train manager announced that that the service would be terminated at Chester. Staffing problems were apparently the cause.
At Chester, several hundred less than happy travellers exited the ten-carriage train and waited on the platform. 20 minutes later, a Transport for Wales four-carriage train arrived and the passengers squeezed themselves on board. Some, no doubt, were left behind. Needless to say, the air was full of bitter complaints.
All this is desperately disappointing. We are now at the beginning of the holiday season. Hospitality businesses in North Wales depend upon a decent train service for their livelihoods. They simply can’t put up with cancellations ostensibly imposed in the interests of a “more reliable service”.
I and my North Wales colleagues at Westminster will be keeping a close eye on AWC’s performance over the coming weeks. If it continues to decline, and if there is no significant improvement, we will once again be pressing the DfT to relieve the company of its franchise.
AWC has been given every chance to show it can run an acceptable operation. If it can’t, then it should go. North Wales deserves better than this.