The Government is making preparations to intervene if Avanti fails to deliver “significant” improvements on the West Coast Main Line, according to the rail minister.
Avanti West Coast has been given until April 1 next year to improve its services following a reduction of its trains in the summer.
Transport minister Kevin Foster said the six-month extension provides a “clear opportunity” for Avanti to improve its services to the “standard we and the public expect”.
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But Mr Foster also signalled that the Government could take over Avanti’s network, which includes services from London to the West Midlands, the North West of England and Scotland, via its Operator of Last Resort.
The in-house body currently manages other services, including London North Eastern Railway.
Mr Foster outlined the opportunity provided by the short-term extension, before telling the Commons: “The Government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a national rail contract for consideration in relation to the route alongside preparations by the Operator of Last Resort for if it becomes necessary for them to step in at the end of the extension period.”
Mr Foster added: “Avanti has also begun to restore services, initially focusing on the Manchester and Birmingham routes. From December, Avanti plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays – a significant step up from the circa 180 daily train services at present.
“We need train services that are reliable and resilient to modern-day life. While the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers.
“We will hold Avanti fully to account for things in its control; however, this plan is not without risk and importantly requires trade union co-operation. The priority remains to support the restoration of services before making any long-term decision.
“In assessing options for a longer-term contract, the Secretary of State will consider factors including outcomes for passengers, value for money, and the delivery of major projects and investments – in this case HS2, given the links they have with that future delivery model.
“But, to put things simply, things must improve during this probation period for this contract to be further extended.”
Labour MP Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood), who secured an urgent question on the issue, asked: “When will this Government stop rewarding Avanti for failure and instead strip it of its franchise and bring the West Coast Main Line back into public ownership?”
Mr Foster, in his reply, said: “We are clear the current service is unacceptable and we will look for significant improvements before April if we’re to look to extend this contract any further.”
Trains were removed from the timetable in August to cut short-notice cancellations after a sharp decline in the number of drivers voluntarily working on rest days for extra pay.
The Department for Transport said nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service between April and December this year, meaning more services have started to be added as new drivers become available to work.
SNP transport spokesman Gavin Newlands said: “Scotland and the North of England have been treated as third-class citizens.”