I am not saying that problems don’t exist, but my experiences of Avanti West Coast have been good – and it’s going to get better

Andy Mellors

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of folk suggest that the railway is in the worst shape ever. Even those who haven’t been on a train for years. I sit in meetings and see low morale and schisms between organisations and, of course, we’d all love clarity around the future government strategy. But, as a customer that travels almost daily to all parts of the UK, hand-on-heart, I can’t recall the last time I had a bad experience. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I think the problem is exaggerated.

With my irritation in mind, it was timely that I caught up last week with Avanti West Coast managing director Andy Mellors, someone who took on – not for the first time in his 35-year career – a perceived poisoned chalice, and who, despite some of the brickbats thrown at his organisation, is doing a stellar job. He’s not one of those show-boating top dogs, but instead has a low-key profile and doesn’t blow his own trumpet. I was, therefore, interested in meeting up to try and lift the lid on him.

Mellors took up the hotseat at Avanti a year ago, having spent a few months since August 2022 helping work on a number of initiatives to improve operational performance. The West Coast, though, is very much in his DNA. He joined the industry as a sponsored student on the British Rail engineering management training scheme. Mellors completed a mechanical engineering degree and that gave an opportunity to work in the sector in the summer holidays. He graduated his final placement before a formal role was offered in the technical office at Willesden Depot and then his first proper management post was as shift production manager at Wembley Depot, which is one of Alstom’s depots now and supports Avanti’s Pendolino fleet. In between times, Andy went to Merseyrail in 1995 and then First North Western and ScotRail – all roles entwined with the West Coast Main Line.

A key career deviation for Andy, though, was as managing director at South Western Railway. Mellors must have felt a sense of groundhog day, taking over SWR from popular Stagecoach and then arriving at Avanti not too long after the departure of well-lauded Virgin on the West Coast. The challenge was SWR had been in the same owning group since privatisation and different owning groups have different ways of governing their businesses, and there’s also the backdrop of the market you’re operating in to exacerbate the challenges. In the case of Avanti, in quick succession, the 2019 launch of the business under First was followed by lockdown and the emergency measure arrangements that changed the whole franchise landscape.

As Mellors explains: “Coming out of the pandemic, the fundamental business model has changed. We still have fewer customers and particularly on an operation such as Avanti, the make-up of customers now means there is a greater reliance on leisure, which is lower yield products. So we had the double whammy of not having fully recovered volumes and revenue line disadvantaged.

How do we get customers back onto the railway? [The answer is] reliable product and value for money

“Ultimately, the message is pretty similar – how do we get customers back onto the railway? [The answer is] reliable product and value for money. It is a challenge coming into a business with a lengthy history of being run in a certain way and overlaid on this, every passenger and freight business has had to change, and those two seismic things happened in quick succession.”

The real challenge for Avanti I had observed was the expectation among staff that a new culture would emerge, particularly given that the previous franchise co-owner, Virgin, was so synonymous with an almost showbiz-style, strong brand vision and derivative personality exuded by its people. However, with the pandemic ensueing so soon, it was impossible for First to inject its own DNA and communicate and deliver on its plans. Mellors agrees, though explains that the headline commitments have actually been enacted, the Pendolino refurbishment for instance and also the introduction of the new Hitachi stock.

The longer-term rolling stock requirements of this business will be heavily influenced by HS2. “The contract we have with government is part of the West Coast Partnership Development (WCPD), shadow operator of HS2,” Mellors explains. “Shamit Gaiger [managing director of WCPD] is influencing those discussions around timetable, rolling stock fleet, customer experience. Two teams work closely together, particularly in terms of rolling stock and timetable development, but clearly the HS2 announcement has quite a profound effect on these requirements and overall capacity.

Whilst leisure patronage has bounced back and is higher than pre-pandemic, this creates some opportunities and also challenges. “Engineering work at weekends is one where the industry has a fundamental challenge in front of it,” Mellors observes. “Equally leisure customers are more flexible, so we find that when we have engineering work or industrial action, we do get a reasonable migration of journeys either side of a period of interruption.

“There are signs of the market continuing to recover but it’s small steps. Delivering the timetable promise, particularly for business travellers, who are more time sensitive, and the on-board offer is important.

He continues: “If you view the train as an extension of the office, connectivity is important – this month we complete a programme of work with BT to install or upgrade 200 lineside masts at a cost of £45m.”

Mellors explained that the pandemic also provided the opportunity to reposition some First Class lounges. At Runcorn, for instance, the lounge has a dual use as a community space, so too at Coventry. For business customers a good on-board product is key “as it is an extension of the office space for many” and the fleet refurbishment and new trains, manufactured by Hitachi, help. Mellors says that Avanti and Alstom continue to be less tolerant in terms of equipment faults, including the ‘point of sale’ interface in the on-board shop where investment has been made on a system that isn’t dependent on Wi-Fi: “You won’t hear the ‘we only take cash’ announcements, anymore and we’re also rolling out new coffee machines on the Pendolino fleet.”

Old lags, like I, bemoan the more prescriptive franchise era in which we currently reside, however, Mellors contests that improvements have been made easier because of the roll out of the new National Rail contract for Avanti which started in October and “has provided a level of contractual certainty for this business that has been lacking for over a decade”.

I’ve feared for some time that with today’s tightly constrained contracts, several train companies, particularly the bigger ones, are retreating from community work and multi-modal activity as the railway moves to a more centralised set-up. From experience, though, Avanti is better than most and I’m aware from my Great Scenic Journeys business of links that have been forged with Stagecoach to improve connectivity with bus services into the Lake District at Penrith.

Mellors explains: “When I joined, I was really heartened that despite the fact that, we’re a long-distance operator with only 16 stations of our own, those relations with the community rail partnerships, with local operators actively happen. We do it because it is the right thing to do and a good advert for our business.”

Innovation isn’t something I’d associate with the recent history of franchised rail services in this era of micro-management, but Mellors says that the introduction of Avanti’s ‘Superfare’ is a good example. It enables customers with flexibility in terms of travel times to save money. Other innovations include the lifting of some off-peak restrictions to stimulate new journeys and the launch of the Standard Premium package, which offers First Class seating comfort but without the refreshment add-ons.

Mellors reports that the Department for Transport has been really supportive towards efforts to grow the business. “We have added some incremental services in the December timetable and put back some of the services that had never returned since Covid,” he says. “We have plans to provide more services on the Liverpool route when the new trains come on line. It’s about incremental infills on the service that are operational and financially sustainable, recognising the industry as a whole is more reliant on taxpayer support than before the pandemic, though we’re progressively moving from net subsidy to returning a premium to government.

“Absolutely we have to work in a framework. If there’s a good idea, there’s a good chance it will be taken forward. The contract we have we agree an annual business plan with DfT that has a revenue and cost line, and we are incentivised to deliver both, and we have sensible conversations with them about
trade-offs. The conversations a year ago tended to be more through the lens of how to reduce cost, now it is how we can improve the bottom line. If we have to spend £1 to make £2 then DfT have been supportive.”

I’m not saying that all in the garden is rosy, but within the context of the pandemic making it difficult for Avanti to articulate their plans as effectively and speedily as they might have hoped, I had imagined that there would be a real challenge in terms of employee engagement moving from Virgin. The longevity at which Virgin held the franchise and the loyalty at which employees felt towards the brand and leadership will have made it difficult for any new operator, particularly in the context of the nationwide challenges around ‘workplace reform’, cost reduction and industrial action.

If there are morale issues it’s not been evident, in my view, as a customer. As a regular on Avanti services, I am always very impressed by the attitude and helpfulness of Mellors’ team, as well as their energy and genuine attentiveness to customers. If anything, it feels very grounded, authentic, and down to earth, like Mellors.

He explains: “The challenges of 2022 and the emergency timetable affected not just customers and stakeholders, but colleagues too as they bore the brunt of customers’ angst when we were not delivering the timetable promise. Re-building the timetable and confidence – well, this inevitably has a halo effect and we’re starting to see tangible things coming through such as fleet refurbishment and pain points for our people, such as the on-board shop’s credit card issue being dealt with.

“Being visible to our people is really key and if anything the industry went backwards on this during the pandemic – losing this management visibility – and seeing problems through the eyes of customers and colleagues, humanising it and having empathy and realising decisions we take in our offices are having an impact on customers and colleagues.”

This isn’t management speak, I regularly see him out and about on the network. During the November floods, I stumbled across him and his operations director controlling Avanti’s network-wide response whilst sitting alongside customers on a service to Birmingham.

There doesn’t appear though to be a distinct Avanti culture, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It feels authentic and culture change programmes do often feel like contrived brainwashing, mumbo-jumbo. “It’s been iterative and there’s still a long way to go and it’s an area we’re doing more work on,” says Mellors. “From the staff Pulse Survey we conducted at the end of last year, the need for a belief in action was the single biggest thing to come out. If you’re going to ask for views, you have to act on the feedback and that’s the process we’re in at the moment … When staff vent their spleen, it’s because they care passionately, people should never be apologetic for that.”

If we have to spend £1 to make £2 then DfT have been supportive

As we draw towards a conclusion, I ask Mellors what the future holds for him, but he’s focused on the job in hand: “It’s about having a relentless laser focus on delivery of a reliable, punctual operation, all year round, and that’s a team game – Network Rail, Alstom, as our fleet provider, and other stakeholders. We’ve got to make sure some of the transformation stuff, like new trains, is delivered in a seamless manner, as any new train introduction is challenging. We’re buying an established product we’re encouraged with in terms of reliability, but we’ve got a lot of people to train whilst delivering the operation. That’s the key focus for me. Getting day-to-day operational railway on a reliable, consistent footing.”

Amidst the battle to run trains on time, there are special days that make it all worthwhile. Yesterday the team took 30 schoolchildren from Crewe to Liverpool for a day out, visiting the Liver building, going on a ferry across the Mersey and having the opportunity to talk about rail safety.

“Many of the pupils had never been on a train before,” he says. “We’ve hosted trips like this for 2,500 students now and have set ourselves a target of 5,000 – it’s so energising and reminds us of what the job is all about.”

In these moribund times across the industry and where large owning groups often seem to lack character and come across as corporate monoliths bereft of charm and local identity, it’s heartening that under Mellors’ focused, under-sold, stewardship, Avanti is a train company that is motivated to ‘do the right thing’ for customers and communities, even if as a company it’s still on a journey with challenges to overcome. I take things as I find, and I’m happy with the customer service I receive on many trips on Avanti, even if that doesn’t make an eye-catching headline or exciting narrative

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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