Government Accused of ‘Cover Up’ of Its Deal With One of Britain’s Worst Train Companies

The silence ‘speaks volumes’.

by Polly Smythe

13 March 2024

RMT leader Mick Lynch. Novara Media
RMT leader Mick Lynch. Novara Media

The RMT has accused the government of a “cover-up” for refusing to publish a copy of the contract for one of Britain’s worst train operators.

The government awarded Avanti a nine-year contract for the West Coast service, linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow last September, despite the firm’s dreadful track record. Its services are notorious for short-notice cancellations, delays, overcrowding, and disruption.

While transport secretary Mark Harper declared Avanti “back on track” when awarding the train operating company its new long-term contract, since September its services have continued to deteriorate. Last Saturday alone, Avanti cancelled or part-cancelled over 50 services.

In January, the RMT made a freedom of information (FOI) request, asking to see the contract between the department for transport and Avanti, setting out the terms of service. Yet despite the escalating chaos on the line, the department for transport rejected the request.

The department told the RMT in response to its FOI request that the contract would be published “in due course,” although provided no timeline.

“Early publication to some parties could potentially cause misinterpretation and confusion,” and “damage the trust between the department and train operating companies,” it said.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said that the union was being “left deliberately in the dark by a government who is fearful of accountability and is engaging in a cover-up.”

The refusal of the government to let the public see the contract “spoke volumes,” he said.

“Passengers and every taxpayer is paying for Avanti to run one of the most appalling services in the recent history of our railways.”

In January, Avanti West Coast was at the centre of a political storm after Novara Media revealed that its managers had joked about receiving “free money” from the government in an internal presentation. A slide show presented to the company’s executive team described performance based bonuses, paid on top of the money given to the company to run the service, as “too good to be true.”

Following the revelations, rail minister Huw Merriman met with the chief executive of FirstGroup, Avanti’s parent company. Senior officials from the department for transport also met with Avanti.

RMT officials say that the recent surge in cancellations and delays, “free money” scandal, and disarray on the service means that there is public interest in publishing the contract as soon as possible, to allow for scrutiny of Avanti’s contractual obligations.

National rail contracts are usually published on a public register, and set out the requirements placed on the train operating company in running the service by the department for transport. The decision to delay publication of the Avanti contract will raise further questions about the department’s relationship with the embattled train operator.

‘Rewarding failure’

When the pandemic stopped rail travel, passenger revenue vanished, prompting the government to end the existing financial model of franchising. Now, the government takes on cost and revenue risks, while paying train operating companies a fixed management fee, with the opportunity for them to earn more if they meet performance related targets.

The national rail contracts set out the standards train operating companies are required to meet to receive performance related payments.

In 2022, Labour accused the government of “rewarding failure” after Avanti received over £17 million in government subsidies between 2019 to 2021, despite poor performance.

While the department for transport has not yet released the latest figures for fees paid to rail operators, there’s concern that ministers could sign off on further performance related payments for Avanti, in spite of its disastrous service.

RMT officials say that any further performance related payments to Avanti would raise serious questions about the content of its contract with the government.

In the House of Commons last month, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh called Avanti’s “free money” comments “disgraceful,” but said that “the problem goes to the contracts that the secretary of state is signing with such failing operators.”

The refusal by the department for transport to publish the contract comes amidst concerns that government departments are deliberately frustrating and obstructing the release of documents.

Last year, Angela Rayner accused Rishi Sunak of a “culture of concealment” after data on FOI requests revealed that the rate of information published in full had dropped to a record low. 

“We all have a right to know what conditions are being placed on the company to provide a decent service,” said Lynch. “Avanti’s contract should be immediately terminated and the whole railway system brought into public ownership where passengers and rail workers can equally benefit.”

Craig Johnston, the RMT’s relief regional organiser, said: “This is one of the backbone routes of this country. It is one of the busiest and most crucial arteries of the national rail network, vital for the economies of Scotland, the Northwest, North Wales, the Midlands, and London.

“The Tories won’t tell you what’s in the contract. But unfortunately for Avanti, they’ve already released some of the information in their ‘free money’ slides. 

“The Tories talk about levelling up. But since Avanti has taken over, it has been nothing short of catastrophic in terms of their performance, their attitude to passengers, and their attitude to the staff.”

An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said: “We have seen short-notice cancellations on our network and would like to apologise to impacted customers for any inconvenience and frustration. We have been working hard to minimise these cancellations, which are a result of a shortage of train crew due to historic leave agreements as well as elevated levels of sickness.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “It is incorrect to claim this is being withheld. This request was denied in line with accepted FOI practices as we plan to publish the full contract shortly.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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