An Avanti West Coast Pendolino train at Crewe
Service reductions that had been made due to reduced demand were not all restored: many trains from London to Chester and North Wales, as well as some from London to Manchester and Birmingham, are among them. Then came the claim by Transport Secretary Grant “Spiv” Shapps that Avanti’s drivers were engaging in unofficial industrial action, though they were not.
“UNOFFICIAL STRIKES: Passengers using Avanti West [sic] services should expect disruption today. Archaic rules from 1919 mean working on rest days is voluntary. Unions now stopping drivers volunteering - causing misery for public & staff who won't get paid. We MUST modernise rail” he told. What Shapps did not tell is that there appeared to be a serious problem at Avanti.
Virgin Trains had sufficient drivers to maintain the full pre-pandemic service, and at first, so did Avanti. But now, there were insufficient driver numbers to cover a reduced service, so much so that the operator was dependent on some drivers volunteering to work their rest days. On top of that came news that a (further?) reduced timetable was to be introduced next month.
As Shapps’ dishonest narrative became the new received wisdom, free sheet Metro told readers “Short-notice strike action has seen a train operator slash its timetables and widespread delays are expected from this weekend … Avanti West Coast … accused train drivers’ union Aslef of carrying out ‘unofficial strike action’ from Saturday”. Then came the really bad news.
“Services between London Euston and Manchester are expected to be the worst affected, with frequencies reduced from three trains per hour to just one from Sunday … The company has also paused sales of train tickets to travel from Sunday until September 11 while it establishes a new timetable”.
No ticket sales? You read that right. Go to National Rail, bring up train times for Crewe to Euston for the first week of September, and look at the fare options offered. Every Avanti service shows “No fares available for this journey”. The trains operated by London Northwestern Railway are unaffected. This reduction in services to Manchester from London, coupled with increased pre-strike demand yesterday evening, led to chaos.
Journalist Hannah Al-Othman got to Euston in good time for the 2000 hours departure to Manchester, but as she later told, “We were at the station in plenty of time, but the 20.00 was delayed, and there was no platform. The platform went up and everyone ran. I was too slow and they shut the gate. For balance: I’m now on the 21.00, which is fine, and I have a seat”.
The Avanti charge sheet also includes a farcical incident at Oxenholme station, which is the main line railhead for Kendal and Windermere. As Cumbria Crack has reported, “Passengers on a delayed train had to climb over spiked fences after they discovered they were locked in at Oxenholme station. People on a delayed Avanti West Coast service from London arrived at the Lake District station to find that staff had gone home for the evening, locking up behind them”. Local MP Tim Farron was not impressed.
He told “there was the concern that passengers would be forced to cross the live tracks to find an alternative route out of the station” (trains can pass through Oxenholme at over 100mph), musing “There are clearly systematic failures going on at Avanti and we cannot let it go unchecked … Avanti have turned one of the best services in the country into one of the worst”.
But that did not just happen. Going from an operation that has sufficient numbers of drivers to run the full pre-pandemic service to one that cannot run a rather more reduced timetable, without depending on the goodwill of those willing to forego their rest days, suggests that a lot of drivers have left and not been replaced. Which brings us back to Grant Shapps’ involvement.
What did he know about the state of Avanti West Coast’s driver establishment, and when did he know it? And if what looks like a significant reduction in that establishment happened and he somehow failed to notice, what on earth is he doing still in post? Will we get an honest answer? Because, with the certainty of night following day, that information will leak.
As so often, it will be the less well paid staff on the front line who will get all the grief. But the decisions that led Avanti to this place must have been taken way above their level. Either the operator’s management is not fit for purpose - or the DfT knows rather more about this than it is letting on.
Grant Shapps must explain himself. That arrival may be severely delayed.
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