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Councillors hit out at Avanti West Coast rail service performance

A rail boss has admitted an operator running trains along the busy West Coast Main Line has become the "poster boy for bad performance" after Staffordshire councillors spoke out about cancellations and reliability

A rail boss has admitted an operator running trains along the busy West Coast Main Line has become the “poster boy for bad performance” after Staffordshire councillors spoke out about cancellations and reliability.

A Newcastle councillor said he now preferred to drive to London, while a community leader in rural Stafford Borough said he no longer used trains at weekends because he couldn’t rely on them.

But measures have been taken to improve Avanti West Coast services, members of Staffordshire County Council were told at a meeting this month, and performance has improved this year. The operator is also set to introduce a new “superfare”, offering passengers the chance to travel between Stafford and London for £12 one-way.

They will be able to choose their day and of travel and time period – either morning, afternoon or evening. But they will not have their specific train service confirmed until the day before they travel.

Councillor Graham Hutton told Mark Osborne, Avanti’s regional growth manager covering Staffordshire, at the scrutiny committee meeting: “I don’t understand why anybody wants to use Avanti these days. I was a great fan of Virgin and all I can say is the service from Stoke to London’s gone downhill massively since Avanti took over – it’s almost pointless taking the train.

“I was looking at Avanti’s overall performance against the average, which is 47% on time when the average is 69% on time. Given that you’re meant to be one of the best operators on the network, I was a bit surprised you’re so low.

“How many people are actually using the train these days? When we go to London we prefer to drive; it’s cheaper and it’s quicker.”

Councillor Jeremy Pert, who represents the Eccleshall area in Stafford Borough, said: “The railway performance is a key issue because if you’re not performing then broadly speaking you’re letting down anyone else who is trying to use Stafford as a key hub station. I know people coming across from Shropshire and the whole of Staffordshire to use Stafford Station as a regional hub.

“I don’t mind which operator I use, I just want to get from A to B. If you do it, great, if CrossCountry do it, great, but you do need to look at both and the cumulative performance on both services is average.

“I used to travel down to London three times a week for work. What I used to be able to do was rely on the train service to get in and out of London and do a day’s work.

“What I’ve found in the last few years is you’re checking the trains before you go to bed for cancellations, you’re checking them halfway through the night and first thing in the morning. You get to the station and it’s still cancelled.

“The knock-on performance of your company is quite painful for lots of people. Is your performance persuading people not to use the trains?

“I for one used to use the trains a lot at weekends. I don’t anymore because I can’t rely on them.”

Mr Osborne said Avanti West Coast had been the “poster boy for bad performance and quite rightly so”. He added: “We won’t deny it has been a challenge.

“We think we’re getting into the right place. We put a plan in action before Christmas and feel we’re getting results now

“We knew our services were bad and there is a number of reasons for that. Some of that’s down to us as the operator, some of that’s down to other operators, some of that’s down to Network Rail and the wider impacts we’ve seen through Covid and industrial action has impacted on our services.

“We are seeing a steady return to our passenger numbers; there is still lots of impact such as industrial action that provides an inconsistency. People want reliability and we’ve failed in reliability.

“We’ve been open and honest that last year we had real problems in providing a regular and consistent service. And when we did put something in place that enabled a regular and consistent service, it was very busy and we couldn’t provide those cheaper tickets and advance fares you would have seen before.

“But we’re progressing towards that in terms of our services and pricing. We’re hoping that continues over future months.”

Councillor Charlotte Atkins said: “With this new superfare, are you intending to run that right the way through the year including high peak times like summer and Christmas? Considering your problems with reliability, can people rely on the fact that they will be given a train to travel on during the time span they want, whether it be an afternoon or a morning, and they don’t suddenly find themselves expecting to travel on a particular day, then the day before find out there’s no train they’ve been allocated to?”

The meeting heard there were always some trains with empty seats, even during peak periods of the year, and an opportunity to sell those seats. But Mr Osborne added: “We have got to manage that properly.

“The market it is targeted at is quite broad; retired people are one of them and it was initially thought it would be good for students. It’s been originally run out from Manchester and Birmingham stations first and we’ve been slowly introducing other destinations on our route.

“We’ve found there’s always been a service. We’ve introduced on the services we have got the most of; for Manchester to London we run three trains an hour normally and if one of those is cancelled then the ticket is transferable.

“This ticket is sold online only and the actual train is confirmed at a very late date compared to when you buy and advance ticket normally. So there is that reliability that you will have a service.”

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