Labour 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 rail route, or else strip the train operator of its contract.
The rail firm, which runs trains between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, cancelled another 12 services on Monday morning, on 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 an hour as part of cuts in place “until further notice”, and is allowing tickets to be bought only a few days in advance.
The slimmed-down timetable was supposed to prevent sudden cancellations, something 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 been relying on train staff working on rest days to operate services.
The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said in the letter to Shapps that Avanti’s action had “caused understandable fury” and badly affected local economies, and that it was “the most basic duty” of a train operator to ensure it had sufficient staff.
“The public will find it extraordinary despite cities being cut off, your department continue to hand over the same routine fixed fee 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 not satisfied, “commit to begin the process of withdrawing the contract”.
Andy Burnham, the Labour 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 us urgently to agree a plan to restore normal services?”
Shapps is taking a generally pugnacious 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 Labour mayors in cities affected by Avanti – Sadiq Khan in London, and Steve Rotherham, the Liverpool metro mayor – Shapps said it was normal for Avanti to require “a degree of voluntary work days” to fulfil its timetable, but that these had dropped 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 while this move was unavoidable, it should minimise the fallout for passengers.
“This is a prime example of why we need to modernise our railways, so that passengers benefit from reliable timetables which don’t rely on the goodwill of drivers volunteering to work overtime in the first place.”
Aslef’s general secretary, Mick Whelan, has vehemently denied that there is any unofficial industrial action beyond the wider rail strikes, the latest of which took place on Saturday.