Labor has written to Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, to urge him to take immediate action to ensure Avanti West Coast restores more frequent services on its busy intercity rail, or else strip the train operator of its contract.
The rail company, which runs trains between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, canceled a further 12 services on Monday morning, the first full day of an already drastically cut schedule.
Avanti has reduced the number of trains between London Euston and Manchester from one every 20 minutes to one every hour as part of the “until further notice” cuts, and allows tickets to be bought just a few days in advance.
The slimmed-down timetable was to prevent sudden outages, something Avanti blamed on a ‘current labor relations climate’ with higher absenteeism and ‘unofficial strike action by Aslef members’.
The union rejected this, saying the railway company had long relied on train crews working on rest days to operate the services.
Shadow transport minister Louise Haigh said in the letter to Shapps that Avanti’s action had “provoked understandable anger” and had severely affected local economies, and that it was “a train driver’s most basic job” to ensure that there were sufficient staff.
“The public will find it extraordinary, despite cities being shut down, your department continues to hand over the same flat fee to the private operator,” she wrote. “You cannot continue to wash your hands of responsibility, nor continue to reward failures without consequences.”
Haigh said Shapps should demand a plan from Avanti to restore full schedules, request compensation from the company for services not performed and, if he is not satisfied, “commit to the process of withdrawing the to start a contract”.
Andy Burnham, the Labor mayor of Greater Manchester, also called on Shapps to take action after the 12 new cancellations. He tweeted: “This is a failing service. I ask the transport secretary again: are you prepared to meet with us urgently to agree on a plan to restore normal service?”
Shapps takes a generally belligerent stance on railroad unions, accusing them of being a hindrance to much-needed industry reform.
In a letter at the weekend Burnham and two other Labor mayors in Avanti-affected towns — Sadiq Khan in London, and Steve Rotherham, the mayor of the Liverpool Underground — Shapps told Avanti that it was normal for Avanti to need “a certain amount of voluntary working days” to fulfill its timetable, but that these had fallen by 90% as part of unofficial union action.
A Transport Ministry spokesman said: “People deserve assurance and confidence that their train will run on time, and while this move was inevitable, it should minimize the impact on passengers.
“This is a great example of why we need to modernize our railways so that passengers can benefit from reliable timetables that do not rely on the goodwill of drivers who voluntarily work overtime.”
Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan has vehemently denied there are any unofficial union actions outside of the wider railway strikes, the latest of which took place on Saturday.