The contrast between Britain’s two premier InterCity routes is quite extraordinary. Before the pandemic – and before the war in Ukraine and the government’s recent mini-budget (should it be called a “Special Fiscal Operation”?) – Avanti West Coast was operating a core off-peak service of nine trains an hour, with some additional peak trains; the equivalent frequency on the East Coast main line was five trains an hour, again supplemented by some additional services and a number of open access services.
The LNER service has been fully restored, and there is even a new train between Kings Cross and Middlesbrough in each direction. In addition, the previous open access operators, Hull Trains and Grand Central, were recently joined by Lumo, providing five trains a day between Edinburgh and Kings Cross. In contrast, the Avanti service was never fully restored; the West Midlands service did not get back to three trains an hour, and Chester, which had enjoyed an hourly service since the completion of the West Coast upgrade in 2008, lost almost all its through London services. But worse was to come – this reduced service started to fall apart, with an ever-increasing number of cancellations, resulting in the introduction of a severely reduced timetable in August, with just four trains an hour, one each to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, supplemented by a handful of additional trains at times of higher demand.
Even this skeleton timetable has not run reliably, with cancellations on a daily basis, sometimes minute by minute. One recent example was the fate that befell the 1423 Euston – Birmingham – Edinburgh service on Friday 16th September. All went well until Preston, where the train stood for fifteen minutes waiting for a driver, and was then switched to Glasgow. Passengers for Edinburgh changed at Carlisle, waiting for a TransPennine Express train – fortunately running that day, as TransPennine’s services have been equally abysmal – and arrived 75 minutes late, with many having had to stand from Carlisle.
Analysis of a recent week showed Avanti cancelled 88 trains, despite operating a dramatically reduced service; in contrast, LNER cancelled only 10 trains over the same period. Both companies are in dispute with both ASLEF and RMT, but the impact on LNER is limited to strike days. The situation on Avanti is clearly different. Despite strenuous denials from ASLEF, it’s pretty clear that industrial relations at Avanti are toxic and there’s a level of guerrilla warfare – if a bird has feathers, swims and quacks, it’s almost certainly a duck. The Managing Director resigned, but the position hasn’t improved so far. Avanti are now promising that the timetable will be largely restored in December, although I’m sceptical that this will happen unless the current industrial disputes are resolved.
Planning journeys on Avanti is equally frustrating and difficult. There is a regulatory requirement on Network Rail and the train operating companies to provide information on planned train services at least 12 weeks in advance, including for engineering work. Inevitably, this went by the board during the pandemic, but the position on Avanti remains appalling. Ironically, the return journey from the trip to Edinburgh was from Glasgow, on Sunday 18th of September. Tickets were finally available on the Avanti website in the evening of the 12th – but tickets for the Saturday of that weekend were still not released by then. How many people would have given up and gone by air instead?
Given this mayhem, its not surprising that LNER’s revenue has recovered strongly, while Avanti’s is anaemic. The irony is that LNER is fully in the public sector, run by Directly Operated Railways, but Avanti is still operated by the franchisee. Rumour has it that Avanti is allowed little or no management freedom by the Department for Transport, but Directly Operated Railways has somehow carved out space to get on with the job without being without being micro-managed.
Whatever the reason, the dramatically different performance suggests that what really matters is the quality of management, not whether ownership is in the public or private sector.
Not everything on LNER is perfect, however. In July, my son and his wife bought advance tickets for a journey from Edinburgh to Berwick on the 1707 Cross Country service, a bargain at £15 using a “Two Together” card. However, when they arrived at the station they found the train was cancelled. The next service was an LNER train at 1730, so potentially only a minor inconvenience. Not a bit of it – the LNER conductor insisted they bought new tickets at a cost of £37.70.
Since the pandemic, DfT takes all revenue risk, so there was no financial incentive for LNER to take a “jobsworth” approach in this case. And we are told by the government that all passenger services will soon be the responsibility of Great British Railways, focussed on providing the best possible service for passengers. So why does the industry penalise passengers for its own failings?
Even the Elizabeth Line, which as an Abbey Wood – Paddington shuttle is operating superbly, falls from grace on some aspects of customer service, with inadequate signing at its central London stations. The low point is perhaps the potentially transformative interchange with Thameslink at Farringdon. A Letchworth to Heathrow passenger may notice posters advising them that “If you are changing to or from the Elizabeth Line at Farringdon and need to touch in or out with contactless, please do so in the ticket hall before returning to the platform”. However, the poster is stuck to a wall near the bottom of the escalator to the Elizabeth Line platforms. Most people will probably not see it, and if they do, will probably not understand it either. So passengers carrying luggage and stressed about getting to the airport on time are asked to go back up to the ticket hall to touch in to avoid an uncapped fare.
One piece of good news. Southeastern is at long last abolishing first class on its longer distance services, remedying the situation where passengers were theoretically paying a premium to sit on exactly the same seat as standard, and in the case of, for example, Canterbury and Dover, travel to London on much slower trains than the standard class only High Speed 1 services. This should of course have been done years ago, when the HS1 Services were introduced – there are apparently now just 28 first class season ticketholders!
Photo credit: Paul Bigland.