The leader of Blackburn with Darwen Council is backing a motion for a train company’s services to be nationalised due to its “poor performance”.

Transport for the North (TfN), a body which provides advice to the Government, passed a motion on Wednesday (March 20) to urge transport secretary Mark Harper to terminate Avanti West Coast’s contract “at the earliest possible opportunity”.

Avanti West Coast serves Lancashire at both Preston and Lancaster, with services north towards Glasgow and Edinburgh and south to London.

Councillor Phil Riley, board member for TfN, said “the public has suffered poor quality service [from the train operator] for too long”.

Transport for the North will now write to the Secretary of State for Transport that Avanti West Coast’s contract should be terminated at the earliest possible opportunity. 

TfN wants the Department for Transport’s OLR (Operator of Last Resort) to take on responsibility for long-distance services on the West Coast Main Line between London Euston and Scotland.

The OLR already runs London North Eastern Railway, Northern, Southeastern and TransPennine Express.

In December, TfN wrote to the Transport Secretary asking him to instruct officials to conduct a critical review into Avanti West Coast’s operation given the deteriorating service, after the operator announced a number of cuts to services over the busy Christmas period, and the board highlighted the economic impact this was having on the region.

In September last year, Avanti West Coast’s operating contract was renewed by the DfT for up to nine years, with Mr Harper claiming it was “back on track” following major disruption.

Phil said: “TfN were surprised when Avanti was awarded a long-term contract by the government in October 2023.

“Since then, there has been no real improvement in services and, in fact, in 2024, service performance has, if anything, declined.

“The view of the TfN membership meeting today is that the travelling public has suffered poor quality service for too long and we have therefore given our statutory advice to the Secretary of State that the contract should be ended and the Operator of Last Resort (OLR) should be appointed to start the long-awaited process of service improvement.”

The OLR was set up within the Department for Transport during rail privatisation to provide an emergency alternative should companies fail or breach the terms of their contract.

Lord McLoughlin, who chairs TfN and is a former transport secretary, said: “Today’s board was very clear. The performance on the West Coast Main Line by Avanti has been so poor for so long that action now must be taken.

“We will be writing statutory advice today to the Secretary of State calling for Avanti to be relieved of its contract.

“The travelling public deserves a service they can rely on, but Avanti has fallen far too short of expectations for far too long now.”

Office of Rail and Road (ORR) figures show Avanti West Coast cancelled 9.1 per cent of its services in the four weeks to March 2.

A spokesperson for FirstGroup, which owns the operator, said: “Our team at Avanti West Coast, and everyone connected with the train operator, are all working hard with a singular focus on delivering the service that customers expect.

“In recent months the service has been below expectations on some days for a variety of reasons, including driver unavailability due to historic leave policies as well as elevated sickness levels.

“Changing the operator won’t affect these fundamental issues affecting the service, which is why it is vital that we continue working with trade unions with whom we have had recent positive discussions, and continue working with Government and other stakeholders on our plans to deliver long-term improvements in customer experience, resilience and a new fleet.”

Rail minister Huw Merriman told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee last month that Avanti West Coast will “never be able to deliver a proper service” due to provisions in its drivers’ contracts relating to working practices and booking time off.

He said the operator’s drivers cannot be asked to do more than one return journey per shift, and can book time off as little as 48 hours in advance.

The department was approached for a comment.