Avanti West Coast has been placed on a short-term contract renewal by the Government after it provided an “unacceptable” service to rail users.
The train company has been given until April 1 next year to improve its services following a reduction of its trains, the Department for Transport (DfT) has said.
The operator reduced its timetable from seven trains per hour to a minimum of four per hour on August 14.
This involved running just an hourly service in each direction between Manchester and London plus additional services at the busiest times.
The route had three trains per hour before the coronavirus pandemic and prior to the timetable change had two services per hour with some extra trains.
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 DfT said nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service this year between April and December, meaning that more services have started to be added as new drivers become available to work.
It added that the company is planning to increase from 180 per day to 264 trains per day on weekdays as more drivers become available as well as continuing to recruit more train staff.
Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “We need train services which are reliable and resilient to modern day life. Services on Avanti have been unacceptable and 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 have agreed a six-month extension to Avanti to assess whether it is capable of running this crucial route to a standard passengers deserve and expect.”
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh described the extension of the contract as a “slap in the face for passengers”.
She wrote in tweet: “This is a reward for abject failure, and a slap in the face for passengers.
“This failing operator has caused travel misery, and the Government’s answer is to hand over millions more in taxpayers’ cash and consign passengers to yet more chaos.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Passengers using Avanti have suffered poor performance for months now, leading to missed meetings, appointments and leisure events. There must now be a laser focus on improving reliability and regaining passenger trust. We will continue to closely monitor the passenger experience.”
FirstGroup, which co-owns Avanti West Coast in a joint venture with Italy’s Trenitalia, said it was “committed” to providing services that meet people’s needs.
Graham Sutherland, FirstGroup chief executive officer, said: “We are committed to working closely with Government and our partners across the industry to deliver a successful railway that serves the needs of our customers and communities. Today’s agreement allows our team at Avanti West Coast to sustain their focus on delivering their robust plan to restore services to the levels that passengers rightly expect.”
The Government’s announcement comes after Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham wrote to Ms Trevelyan and urged for the train company to be stripped of its contract unless the axed services were reinstated soon.
Last month, the company published a plan to reinstate some services on certain days from September 27.
Timetables on other days were due to be boosted “as soon as possible” ahead of another increase on December 11.
Avanti West Coast’s contract was originally due to expire on October 16.