Labor has written to Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, urging him to take immediate action to ensure that Avanti West Coast restores more frequent services on its busy intercity rail line, or else shut down the operator railway of his contract.
The rail company, which operates trains between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, canceled 12 other services on Monday morning, the first full day of an already significantly reduced emergency timetable.
Avanti has reduced the number of trains between London Euston and Manchester from one every 20 minutes to one per hour as part of the reductions in place ‘until further notice’, and is only allowing tickets to be purchased for a few days in advance.
The simplified timetable was meant to prevent sudden cancellations, which Avanti blamed on the “current industrial relations climate” involving increased sickness absence and “unofficial strikes by Aslef members”.
The union rejected this, saying the rail operator had long relied on train staff working on rest days to operate services.
Shadow Transportation Secretary Louise Haigh said in the letter to Shapps that Avanti’s action had “provoked understandable furor” and badly affected local economies, and that it was “the most basic duty” of d a rail operator to ensure that it has sufficient staff.
“The public will find this extraordinary despite the towns being cut, your department continues to hand out the same routine package to the private operator,” she wrote. “You can’t keep washing your hands of blame, or keep rewarding failure without consequences.”
Haigh said Shapps should demand a plan from Avanti for restoring the full schedule, seek compensation from the company for unperformed services and, if not satisfied, “commit to initiating the process of withdrawing from the contract”.
Andy Burnham, the Labor mayor of Greater Manchester, also called on Shapps to act after the 12 further cancellations. He tweeted“This is a failing service. I ask the transport secretary again: are you ready to meet with us urgently to agree on a plan to restore normal services?”
Shapps took a generally pugnacious attitude towards the railroad unions, accusing them of being an obstacle to much-needed reforms in the industry.
In a weekend letter To Burnham and two other Labor mayors of towns affected by Avanti – Sadiq Khan in London, and Steve Rotherham, Liverpool’s underground mayor – Shapps said it was normal for Avanti to demand “a number of days of voluntary work” to fill his schedule, but that these had dropped by 90% in unofficial industrial action.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: ‘People deserve certainty and confidence that their train will run on time, and while this decision is inevitable, it should minimize the fallout for passengers.
“It’s a great example of why we need to modernize our railways, so that passengers have reliable timetables that don’t rely on the goodwill of conductors volunteering to work overtime.”
Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan vehemently denied there was any unofficial industrial action beyond the wider rail strikes, the last of which took place on Saturday.