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Avanti West Coast will ‘never be able to deliver a proper service’ – minister

Office of Rail and Road figures show the West Coast Main Line operator cancelled 8.1% of its services in the four weeks to February 3.

Avanti West Coast struggles with reliability because of “restrictive” trade union agreements, MPs have heard.

Rail minister Huw Merriman said Avanti West Coast will “never be able to deliver a proper service” due to its drivers’ contracts.

Office of Rail and Road figures show the West Coast Main Line operator cancelled 8.1% of its services in the four weeks to February 3.

The cancellation rate for LNER, which runs on the East Coast Main Line, was 5.1% over the same period.

Mr Merriman told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee he is “concerned” about the disparity in the operators’ reliability despite them having similar staffing numbers and sickness rates.

He gave examples of three agreements with Aslef which mean Avanti West Coast “doesn’t really work”.

He said managers trained as drivers cannot be used to drive trains except in exceptional circumstances.

If this was permitted – as is the case at LNER – then Avanti West Coast’s cancellation rate of “about 4.6% would go down to below 1%”, the minister said.

Mr Merriman told the committee that drivers cannot be asked to do more than one return journey per shift.

“If we could do that, due to the way the Avanti timetable operates you would get about a 10%-15% productivity gain”, he said.

This so-called double tripping is permitted at LNER.

Mr Merriman also said there are conditions around drivers’ ability to take time off that “don’t apply on LNER” – such as booking leave as little as 48 hours in advance – which often cause problems on Saturdays and during school holidays.

He gave the example of how up to a quarter of Avanti West Coast’s drivers based in Edinburgh can be off work at the same time.

“What that effectively means is you’ve then got fewer services that can operate,” the committee heard.

Mr Merriman went on: “All of these side agreements – these restrictive terms and conditions – mean management cannot put their workforce where the passenger actually needs them.”

He said reforming working practices is “at the heart” of the long-running industrial dispute with Aslef.

The union “won’t agree” to the changes despite a “fair and reasonable pay offer” – which would take an average drivers’ annual salary from £60,000 to £65,000 – because increased productivity would result in fewer drivers being needed, Mr Merriman said.

In September last year, Avanti West Coast’s operating contract was renewed by the Department for Transport for up to nine years, with Transport Secretary Mark Harper claiming it was “back on track” following major disruption.

Aslef has been approached for a response.

Avanti West Coast declined to comment.

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