Avanti West Coast has been told it must “drastically improve services” as the government awarded the operator of the London to Glasgow line a six-month extension to its contract.
The government’s controversial decision means the rail firm, which runs trains between London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, will be able to continue running services until next April. The current contract had been due to expire on 16 October.
The train company has been heavily criticised after significantly reducing its services since August, cutting the number of trains between London and Manchester to only one an hour, and releasing tickets only a few days in advance.
The transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said that Avanti’s performance had been “unacceptable”.
Avanti, which has blamed the reduced timetable on a shortage of train drivers, started to increase services on some routes and said 100 additional drivers will have been trained by December.
“We need train services which are reliable and resilient to modern day life,” Trevelyan said. “Services on Avanti have been unacceptable, and while the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers.”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, and Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, have said that Avanti should lose its contract unless it urgently increases services.
“We have agreed a six-month extension to Avanti to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect,” Trevelyan said.
FirstGroup, which owns Avanti West Coast in a joint venture with Italy’s Trenitalia, has said it plans to increase services from about 180 trains a day to 264 on weekdays as more drivers become available. It has also said it will improve ticketing services.
“We are committed to working closely with government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway that serves the needs of our customers and communities,” said Graham Sutherland, the chief executive of FirstGroup. “Today’s agreement allows our team at Avanti West Coast to sustain their focus on delivering their robust plan to restore services to the levels that passengers rightly expect.”