The boss of Avanti West Coast apologised to Andy Burnham and Greater Manchester residents over its service in a tense exchange.
Avanti’s managing director Andy Mellors also repeated his regret over a presentation where top staff joked about receiving "free money" from the government. The fraught conversation took place at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s (GMCA) Bee Network Committee meeting.
During the two-hour summit, councillors from all 10 boroughs received an update on the road safety ‘Vision Zero’ strategy, a trial to have bikes on Metrolink trams, and new reports on Bee Network bus punctuality, to be released every Thursday. However, the meeting was dominated by an update on rail performance in the city-region — with representatives from TransPennine Express, Northern, Network Rail, and Avanti all present.
Although all of the firms involved were quizzed on why train services were becoming less reliable, despite only operating at 92 per cent of the pre-pandemic capacity, Avanti came in for particular criticism from Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.
When asked by the mayor if he felt that he owed Greater Manchester residents an apology for Avanti’s "service, or lack of it", Mr Mellors said: “We’ve been on record to say our service delivery has not been good enough and we’ve apologised for that. I’m happy to reiterate that apology today.
“We’re working really hard to deliver the resilient operation all year round. We’ve made some good inroads over the last 12 months with the actions taken, but absolutely recognise there’s more work to do. We continue to make progress to deliver all-year-round resilience.”
Mr Burnham then challenged the managing director, who only took the post over 10 months ago, on why services "collapsed" in December, accusing Avanti of "simply not employing enough drivers to cover your timetable".
Mr Mellors replied: “No, that’s not the case. We are recruiting in unprecedented numbers. At any point in time, we have 80 drivers in training, with a total headcount of 600. We need around 500 drivers to deliver our day to day operation.
“These issues with elevated levels of sickness and issues with peaks in annual leave because of historic agreements are the reason we have had, in certain weeks of the year, challenges with service delivery. The good news is as we come into January, holiday leave has reduced so we have got a more resilient operation.”
The spiky exchange continued with Mr Burnham, who is seeking a third consecutive Mayoral term in May, asking if there were cultural problems at Avanti, citing a recent example of its bosses being caught joking about receiving "free money" from the government via an internal presentation.
“We are undertaking an investigation on what went on there in terms of the adequacy of the processes and controls in the production of that material,” Mr Mellors said in response. “We did apologise — that language was unacceptable and the investigation is in progress.
“I will reiterate that the service quality regime is part of the national contract. It is designed as an independent audit regime to drive up standards and that’s what the regime has been demonstrated to do in terms of on-train standards, stations, and also customer information.”
Mr Burnham again pressed Mr Mellors on the slides, adding: “Don’t the slides reveal the truth that you’re more interested in making money than providing the service to our residents?”
“No, we are absolutely resolute in the need to deliver a good experience for our customers,” Mr Mellors replied. “That’s about delivering year-round operation and driving up the customer experience.”
That prompted Mr Burnham to ask Avanti — and other operators at the meeting — for a "cast-iron guarantee today that there will be no repeat in 2024 of what we’ve had to put up with in 2023 and 2022".
“I can give you a cast-iron guarantee that we’re working hard to minimise that will happen,” Mr Mellors began to answer, before being told to answer the question specifically on "performance" improving by the mayor.
He said: “I can say that the actions we have taken meant that performance has improved over the past year. The last two Office of Rail and Road quarterly reports have demonstrated that and we will continue to make progress.”