Daily Post Article: West Coast Rail Franchise

Posted on 19th October, 2022

Even in these post-pandemic days of Zoom video meetings, reliable transport communications are essential to any modern economy. Without them, business suffers.

North Wales, thanks to our Victorian ancestors, has been fortunate to have access to the West Coast railway line, which has brought London and other major cities within easy reach. Historically, the line has been a boon to our region, and was part of the reason resorts such as Colwyn Bay and Llandudno achieved such huge prosperity during the last century.

Until 2019, Virgin Trains operated the West Coast rail franchise. As an MP since 2005, I was a regular user and was entirely satisfied with the service they provided. Trains were clean, comfortable, fast and generally punctual. The staff were uniformly friendly and courteous.

Avanti West Coast, a joint venture by FirstGroup and Italy’s Trenitalia, took over the operation of the West Coast main line in December, 2019. Avanti were unfortunate. Within weeks of commencing operation, Covid struck. Inevitably and entirely understandably, Avanti services were curtailed.

As the virus subsided, Avanti services began to increase. In early 2022, through services between North Wales and London began to return. Then, in August of this year, the timetable was abruptly cut again. Through services virtually disappeared.

The problem appears to be Avanti’s business model. The company has relied heavily on drivers being prepared to work overtime on their rest days. However, the drivers have been increasingly disinclined to do so.

The consequence is that the journey from and to Euston has turned into an obstacle course. Travellers from London are obliged to change at Crewe and, sometimes, again at Chester. The North Wales main line has become a branch line.

Journey times are, as a consequence, significantly longer. My last journey home to Colwyn Bay from Euston took almost four hours, as opposed to the usual 2 hours 40 minutes.

And it’s not just the slower journey times. Catering on the trains is patchy and unreliable. On my most recent journey, it was announced that the coffee machine in the buffet car was not working and that only cash could be accepted, because the electronic card reader was out of order. I felt hugely sorry for my fellow passengers, some of whom were en route to Glasgow.

As a consequence of the substandard service provided by Avanti, North Wales Conservative MPs wrote to the rail minister last month urging him not to extend the company’s franchise when it came up for renewal in mid-October, but to find another operator more able to deliver a decent service.

The minister has, however decided to give Avanti a short extension to April 2023 “to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect.”

In other words, Avanti has been given one more chance.

I have written to the minister again and urged him to make sure it is a final chance.

North Wales is entitled to a decent train service. Avanti aren’t providing it.

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