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The West Coast Main Line is one of the UK’s major rail routes, and has been subject to widespread disruption, timetable reductions and cancellations in 2022.

The West Coast Main Line

The West Coast Main Line (WCML) is one of the major rail routes in Great Britain, stretching 399 miles (641.6km) from London Euston to Glasgow and Edinburgh via the West Midlands and the North West of England.

According to Network Rail who own and maintain it, the WCML track has 64 operational stations and is:

the busiest mixed-use railway in Europe, forming Anglo-Scottish journeys between London, Glasgow and Edinburgh via the West Midlands and North West, as well as providing commuter links direct to the capital through Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire.

In 2015 the Department for Transport (DfT) described the WCML as “one of our most important rail corridors” adding:

it links four of Britain’s biggest conurbations and serves all rail markets: inter-city; commuter; regional; and freight. […]

Three of Britain’s top six business rail flows (London to each of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool) are served by the WCML; a significant inter-city leisure market also exists.

Train Operating Companies

The following Train Operating Companies (‘TOCs’ or ‘operators’) use the WCML:

  • Avanti West Coast
  • TransPennine Express
  • West Midlands Trains
  • London North Western
  • Northern
  • CrossCountry
  • Caledonian Sleeper
  • ScotRail
  • LNER
  • Transport for Wales (TfW)
  • Southern

2022 Disruption and response

Since Summer 2022, services on both Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express (two of the main operators using the WCML) have experienced significant reliability problems on the WCML, with services being cut from the timetable, or cancelled with short notice.

For example, Avanti announced in August it was cutting the number of trains between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly from one every 20 minutes to one an hour ‘until further notice’, saying it had acted in the wake of industrial action ‘to ensure a reliable service is delivered so customers can travel with greater certainty’.

Avanti West Coast contract

Before Avanti’s rail contract was due to expire on 16 October 2022, on 7 October the Government granted it a short 6-month contract extension to 1 April 2023 “to stabilise its operational challenges”.

In a Commons debate on the Avanti West Coast Contract Renewal on 25 October 2022, Cat Smith MP said that the six-month contract extension was a “reward for failure”:

By giving Avanti this six-month contract extension, after months of failure and rail chaos, this Government are frankly rewarding that failure. Avanti promised to improve services back in September, and instead it has gone and cut services, introduced this emergency timetable and almost entirely stopped selling tickets online.

The provision of reliable train services is essential for the economic growth and prosperity of more than half the UK’s population. I seek clarification on the metrics the Minister will use to assess improvement or, indeed, further failure, given that the bar is currently set so low. It is clear that the west coast franchise has been fundamentally mismanaged by Avanti.

During the same debate, other MPs also raised issues of reliability, cramped trains, and a lack of availability of advanced tickets meaning passengers had to pay more when buying a ticket on the day of travel. The then Rail Minister, Kevin Foster, said that public ownership, through the DfT’s Operator of Last Resort (OLR) company, was an option if Avanti failed to improve at the end of their current contract period, but that this would not solve all the operator’s problems:

The idea that just sticking it into the OLR tomorrow morning will suddenly resolve all the problems is not practical, but we are very clear that if we do not see the significant improvements that we need to see post the December improvement plan being implemented, we will need to take a careful view of the long-term future of the franchise.

TransPennine Express contract

In a response to a written question answered on 15 November 2022, the Rail Minister Huw Merriman noted that recent disruption on TransPennine Express (TPE) services was, similarly to Avanti, largely due to an over-reliance on rest-day working and overtime, and that a programme of improvements at TPE had been agreed:

The Department, which manages TPE’s contract in partnership with Transport for the North, as a temporary solution and subject to strict conditions, agreed that TPE could introduce a revised timetable from mid-September 2022 for services it operates on the West Coast Main Line.

The amended timetable was discussed with Northern stakeholders, including the Manchester Airport Group and Transport for Greater Manchester, and entails reductions in services back to a similar level provided pre-May 2022, complemented by additional bus services in Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.

My officials have been in regular contact with TPE to manage the provision of services and have agreed a programme of measures to deliver a more reliable timetable, including:

  • Ongoing review of timetables to establish a stable and reliable base in the short term;
  • Introduction of additional drivers and conductors (currently being trained);
  • Recruitment of 68 more drivers to reduce TPE’s reliance on rest day working and overtime; and
  • Resolution with the unions of current industrial relations issues, including the possible reinstatement of rest day working, to increase available staff resources and operational flexibility.

The current TPE rail contract ends on 28 May 2023, although in March 2022 the Government announced its intention to award a new contract to FirstGroup to run the TPE franchise for up to 8 years from 2023.

Reliability statistics

The cancellation measure used by the regulator, the Office for Road and Rail (ORR), is a weighted score which counts full cancellations as one, and part cancellations as half. This industry measure is an indicator of disruption against the timetable operating on the day.

The average rate of cancellations in Great Britain was 4.1% in the latest quarter (July to September 2022). This is higher than the same quarter in 2019 (pre-pandemic) in which it was 3.4% as well as the pandemic figure of 2.2% in 2020.

The reliability of selected train operators that use the West Coast Main Line are in the following chart. In quarter 3 of 2022, the rate of cancellations was 12.1% for Avanti West Coast, 6.6% for CrossCountry, 6.4% for TransPennine Express, 4.8% for West Midlands and 4.1% for Northern Trains.

Source:  Office for Road and Rail (ORR),  Passenger rail performance, Table 3123

A comparison of reliability with all operators can be made in the chart below. The latest data shows that cancellations on Avanti West Coast were substantially higher than for any other train operator.


Source:  Office for Road and Rail (ORR),  Passenger rail performance, Table 3123

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