Labor has written to Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, urging him to take immediate action to ensure Avanti West Coast restores more frequent services on its busy intercity train route, or strip the train operator of its contract.
The rail company, which runs trains between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, canceled a further 12 services on Monday morning, the first full day of an already drastically reduced emergency timetable.
Avanti has cut the number of trains between London Euston and Manchester from one every 20 minutes to one hourly as part of cuts in place “until further notice”, allowing tickets to be bought just a few days in advance.
The slim timetable was supposed to prevent sudden cancellations, which Avanti blamed on a “current industrial relations climate” involving higher sickness absence and “unofficial strike action by Aslef members”.
The union rejected this, saying the rail operator had long relied on train staff working on rest days to run services.
The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said in her letter to Shapps that Avanti’s action had “created understandable fury” and hit local economies hard, and that it was the “most fundamental duty” of a train operator to ensure it was adequately staffed.
“The public will find it extraordinary that despite cities being cut off, your department continues to hand over the same fixed fixed charge to the private operator,” she wrote. “You cannot continue to wash your hands of responsibility, nor continue to reward failure without consequences.”
Haigh said Shapps should demand a plan from Avanti for the restoration of the full timetable, seek compensation from the firm for services not being run and, if they are not satisfied, “commit to start the process of withdrawing the contract”.
Andy Burnham, the Labor mayor of Greater Manchester, also called on Shapps to take action after the 12 new cancellations. He tweeted: “This is a failing service. I ask the Transport Secretary again: are you prepared to meet with us as soon as possible to agree a plan to restore normal services?”
Shapps has a generally hostile attitude towards rail unions, accusing them of being a barrier to much-needed reforms in the industry.
In a letter at the weekend to Burnham and two other Labor mayors in cities affected by Avanti – Sadiq Khan in London, and Steve Rotherham, Liverpool’s metro mayor – Shapps said it was normal for Avanti to require “a degree of voluntary working days” to meet the timetable, but that these had fallen by 90% as part of unofficial industrial action.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “People deserve certainty and confidence that their train will run on time and although this move was unavoidable, it should minimize the impact on passengers.
“This is a great example of why we need to modernize our railways so that passengers benefit from reliable timetables that don’t rely on the goodwill of drivers who volunteer to work overtime in the first place.”
Aslef’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, has strongly denied there is any unofficial industrial action beyond the wider rail strikes, the latest of which took place on Saturday.