Avanti West Coast Launches ‘Vendetta’ Against Staff After Executives Joked About ‘Free Money’

The train company has faced awkward questions thanks to Novara Media’s revelations.

by Polly Smythe

30 January 2024

Avanti managing director Andy Mellors is grilled by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority's Bee Network Committee. Screengrab: GMCA
Avanti managing director Andy Mellors is grilled by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Bee Network Committee. Screengrab: GMCA

Avanti West Coast has been accused of leading a “vendetta” against staff, after the train operator launched an internal investigation into the leak of presentation slides that showed managers joking about receiving “free money” from the government.

Slides from an all-managers meeting, held on 12 January and first reported by Novara Media, showed Avanti managers privately joking “roll-up, roll-up get your free money here” in relation to government subsidies and calling performance-related payments “too good to be true.”

The revelations placed the train operator at the centre of a political storm, with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden calling the slides “very concerning,” and pledging to look into them.

Minister for transport Huw Merriman confirmed that senior officials from the department have spoken to Avanti, and its parent company First Rail Holdings, about the slides.

Shadow leader of the House, Lucy Powell, said Avanti “bragging about free money from the taxpayer whilst rail passengers suffer poor services” was part of the government’s “terrible record” and part of the reason that “ordinary people feel the system is rigged against them.”

Outside of parliament, Mayor Andy Burnham quizzed Avanti’s managing director Andy Mellors on the slides in a tense encounter at last week’s meeting of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Bee Network Committee.

Mellors had attended and addressed part of the all-managers meeting where the slides were originally presented.

Burnham questioned the idea that the slides were the fault of “one individual” asking Mellors if they instead revealed a “problem with the culture inside your company?”

Burnham went on to ask: “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,” replied a red-faced Mellors.

In an internal email sent to Avanti staff last week, Mellors apologised for the “unacceptable language” of the slides and acknowledged that “some” of the wording was “completely inappropriate.”

“Our customers’ needs will always be at the heart of everything we do, and I am sorry that this issue has created the impression that this is not the case,” he said.

But while it has been quick to publicly apologise, Avanti has also launched an investigation into the source of the leak. Behind closed doors, Avanti is investigating a handful of staff who were unwittingly sent an email containing a link to the all-managers presentation.

In the internal letter, Mellors said: “We are taking the leak of confidential company information very seriously and immediately commenced an investigation.

“We have put in place a tighter process for approving and disseminating information within the business to ensure a similar incident will not happen again,” he said.

According to the RMT, staff who were sent the presentation, which was not marked confidential, have been interviewed, with Avanti confiscating staff work phones and returning them without SIM cards. Avanti dispute this claim, saying SIM cards were returned to staff immediately.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has written to Avanti train managers, informing them that the issue is “currently being dealt with at the highest level within the union.

“I can assure you that if any RMT member is affected by this issue or subjected to a disciplinary, then the union will do everything within our means to protect and defend our members,” he said.

An RMT spokesperson said: “Avanti should solely focus on running an efficient rail service where trains turn up on time and staff are well treated. Instead, they are carrying out a vendetta against staff.

“Describing government funding as ‘free money’ in meeting slides is the problem and shows the contemptible attitude the company has for taxpayers and passengers.”

Avanti West Coast rejected the suggestion that it is carrying out a vendetta.

An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said: “There is an investigation ongoing following the unacceptable language used in this presentation for which we apologise. The scope of the investigation includes the processes and controls in place with regards to the production, approval as well as distribution of these presentation materials to ensure this does not happen again. We completely reject the RMT’s accusations and are committed to a fair and objective investigation.”

The latest scandal comes amidst prolonged disruption, delays, and cancellations for passengers reliant on Avanti services. Samantha Dixon, MP for Chester, wrote to Mellors on 17 January expressing “serious concerns” over the service provided by Avanti. “It is now a pleasant surprise if your journey with Avanti is smooth, on time and with an available seat,” she wrote. “This is simply not good enough.”

Dixon’s letter said that the “disgraceful remarks” made in the presentation showed that “even your top team don’t think Avanti are delivering the services our constituents deserve.

“The fact that they think this is a joke, is a serious affront to those I represent seeking to use your services.”

Avanti’s parent company FirstGroup, which also owns Great Western Railway and Hull Trains, paid its executives £1.3million in bonuses in 2022/23.

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Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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