MPs investigating the failures of Avanti West Coast and other train operators have been told: “Traveling across the north of England by train is hardly possible anymore.”
The Transport Select Committee is holding a special session on rail travel in the north of England. The first witness was Jennifer Williams, a northern correspondent for the financial times.
She said: “It’s become almost impossible, to be honest, to travel from north to south or from east to west if you’re in the north of England if you’re trying to get around by train.
“It has become very common for people to say: ‘You really can’t tell if it’s a strike day or not in the north of England at the moment.
“Avanti has its own special kind of chaos.”
Avanti West Coast operates trains from Manchester, Lancaster, Liverpool, Preston, Wigan, Warrington and Crewe to London Euston, as well as links to the south of Scotland, the West Midlands and North Wales.
“The actual experience of getting service from Avanti is terrifying in all sorts of ways,” said Ms. Williams.
“The trains are overcrowded. Very often it is impossible to book tickets in advance.
“Many times the seat reservations end up being suspended. People are sitting on the ground. The trains are dirty. Things are broken: the card machines are broken, the toilets are broken, the air conditioning is broken.”
The committee heard that trains on the West Coast Main Line had relied on staff working on days off for decades. In August, the number of drivers volunteering for overtime was dramatically reduced, and an emergency schedule with fewer trains was introduced.
A new schedule with more services began on Sunday, which Avanti West Coast says is not contingent on rest day work.
Richard Scott, director of corporate affairs for the West Coast Partnership, which manages the Avanti West Coast franchise, said services had now improved.
But he admitted: “People need to rebuild their confidence. That’s not a switch we can flip overnight. The way we’re going to rebuild that trust is by consistently delivering so people think, ‘I can trust Avanti.’ And that’s what we’re going to do.
“We are following the schedule that we said we would execute.”
Scott warned that there could be short notice cancellations due to illness during flu season, but said it would not be “on the scale that people have seen before.”
He also apologized for serving vulnerable passengers and those with additional needs. He said: “The service we have provided in the last few months has not been good enough. I apologize unreservedly for that.
“The key to all of this is getting back to a stable schedule that we can stick to.”
Senior Labor MP Ben Bradshaw asked the Avanti West Coast executive if the train company was considering changing its name.
“It’s a misnomer, isn’t it? ‘Avanti’ means forwards,” she said. “But you’ve been relentlessly backtracking since you took over from Virgin.”
Mr Scott said: “It hasn’t been good enough in recent months, I fully accept that. But now we are moving forward.
“The schedule that came in on Sunday is the way to do it.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, said: “Clearly there has been some kind of serious breakdown at Avanti of industrial relations in general.
“Staff-management relations do not appear to be good and need to be restored.”
Lord McLoughlin, chairman of Transport for the North and a former transport secretary, said: “There are signs of improvement. Avanti managed to run all three trains per hour [between Manchester and London] Monday, but of course now we are in a national dispute.”
Strikes called by the RMT union are disrupting rail travel in Britain this week until Sunday, with more stoppages planned early in the new year.