Passengers on one of the UK’s busiest inter-city rail routes face a prolonged period of disruption after the operator of the west coast mainline sharply reduced services, blaming “severe” staff shortages.
Avanti West Coast, which runs services from London to cities in the north of England and Scotland, said on Monday it would implement an emergency timetable from August 14 until “further notice.” It also announced it was temporarily suspending the sale of all tickets.
It will cut services to four trains per hour from London to cities including Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. The company normally operates seven an hour from London, including three to Manchester.
Avanti blamed the disruption on “the current industrial relations climate” in the railway industry, which has been hit by a series of national strikes over pay, possible job losses and changes to working practices.
The operator, in which the UK’s FirstGroup holds 70 per cent and Italian state railway company Trenitalia 30 per cent, said it had been hit by “severe staff shortages” through increased sickness. It blamed “unofficial strike action”, with fewer drivers signing up to work on their rest days in recent weeks.
The train operator’s timetable is heavily reliant on staff agreeing to work on days off, with as many as 400 trains per week operated by drivers working overtime. That number has fallen to as low as 50 trains in recent weeks, leading to significant disruption to services, it said.
The claim that refusing to work overtime constituted an “unofficial strike” has angered unions. Aslef, the drivers union, has said the claim was a “lie”, and that Avanti does not employ enough drivers. Its members are due to strike on Saturday in a row over pay at nine train operators, including Avanti.
But union officials said its members have taken no other industrial action and that working rest days was entirely voluntary.
The RMT union, which is in dispute with Network Rail, the operator of the UK’s rail network, as well as most train operators, has called for a meeting with Grant Shapps, UK transport secretary, over the situation at Avanti.
“Avanti are falsely and shamefully making allegations that this decision is due to unofficial industrial action when the reality is this decision arises from poor management, cutting staffing to the bare minimum and rock-bottom staff morale,” said Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT.
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said Avanti’s move to a reduced schedule would “create significant hurt for business travellers”, adding: “It will drive people into cars and on to planes as they seek alternative arrangements.”
Avanti acknowledged the disruption would cause “enormous frustration and inconvenience”, but said the new reduced timetable would allow customers to travel “with greater certainty”.
The government has been approached for comment.