Avanti under new pressure amid calls for dividend reversal

Figures released by the Office of Rail and Road have shown that Avanti West Coast paid £12 million to its owners FirstGroup and Trenitalia last year.

The revelation has prompted calls from Labour for the money to be repaid to taxpayers in the light of Avanti’s poor performance in recent months, when the number of its cancellations boosted the national average to a new height, although the figures are now improving.

The operator was receiving payments of £343 million as part of its contract with the Department for Transport, but apart from £12 million the rest was used to pay its costs.

FirstGroup said: ‘Since 2020, train operators have been paid a nominal fixed annual management fee as well as a performance-based fee against specific targets set by the government to run rail services. The information released by ORR today refers to financial data for operations in the year to March 2022, during which we saw passenger numbers begin to recover after the impact of the pandemic and prior to industrial action across the network.’

Consumer watchdog Transport Focus has described the disruption as ‘potentially putting some off using the train for good’, while the RMT has accused Avanti of ’systematic mismanagement … causing delays, fewer trains and staff shortages’.

Avanti has been given a six-month extension of its contract to give it time to recover from driver shortages but patience has been running out, particularly among politicians and business leaders in north west England.

Transport secretary Mark Harper is due to meet metro mayors in northern cities today and buiness leaders tomorrow. There is also concern about poor performance on TransPennine Express and Northern.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh has accused the government of ‘rewarding abject failure with taxpayers’ hard-earned money’. She continued: ‘It is scandalous that despite the abysmal service, the government has allowed public money to flow into the pockets of shareholders. It’s time the government did their job and hold this failing operator to account. Ministers sign off on dividend payments – they must claw back taxpayers’ cash being used to reward failure.’

Timetables are set to change in December and improvements are hoped for then, but the chief executive of Northern Powerhouse Partnership Henri Murison said: ‘We need a resolution of this by the end of the week or we will get absolute chaos following the timetable change on 11 December, when the trains committed to will often be cancelled more than not.’

The Department for Transport said it is holding regular meetings with Avant West Coast managers, adding: ‘They have been given six months to roll out a recovery plan and deliver long-overdue reliability.’

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: ’Passengers have told us that this disruption is having a significant impact, potentially putting some off using the train for good. Some have cancelled plans or travelled another way, while others feel anxious about it all going wrong. While most of those who are able to travel find the experience OK, many have experienced crowding.

‘Avanti and TransPennine Express must do better in ensuring that the trains run reliably. They must also provide better information.’

First Rail managing director Steve Montgomery apologised earlier this month for the difficulties, saying that they were caused by sickness and drivers refusing to work overtime.

He continued: ‘We apologise to customers. We understand the inconvenience this is causing people in their day to day lives. And it is something that we are trying to correct.’

source= http://www.railnews.co.uk/news/2022/11/30-avanti-under-new-pressure-amid.html