Virgin Trains loses West Coast mainline franchise to FirstGroup
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains has lost the West Coast rail franchise to rail operator FirstGroup. They will take over as First West Coast Limited from 9th December until 2026.
FirstGroup bought the franchise for £5.5 billion. It extends from London to Glasgow, connecting cities including Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Chester.
Tim O’Toole, chief executive of FirstGroup, said: “As the UK’s largest rail operator with a highly experienced management team, we have established a vast wealth of knowledge with unrivaled expertise in operating every type of rail franchise.”
However, Sir Richard Branson was bitter in his reception of the news, which he said was “extremely disappointing for Virgin”. He said: “We also did not want to risk letting everybody down with almost certain bankruptcy. Sadly the government has chosen to take that risk with FirstGroup.”
Sir Richard Branson said the tendering process was “flawed” and called the Department for Transport’s decision “insanity”. He charted the achievements of Virgin’s tenure, saying: “We set hugely challenging targets to dramatically speed up journey times with modern tilting trains, increase the frequency of the service, improve the on-board experience; as well as double passenger numbers and return the line to profit. These achievements have counted for little – as this is the fourth time that we have been out-bid in a rail tender.”
The new franchise is set to offer new services (London to Blackpool, Telford, Shrewsbury and Boston) and cuts of 15% to the Standard Anytime fares. First West Coast Limited will spend £22 million on a station investment programme and also plan to deliver 12,000 extra seats from December 2016.
Rail minister Theresa Villiers said: “This new franchise will deliver big improvements for passengers. The West Coast is the first of the new longer franchises to be let by the Coalition which has helped us secure real benefits for passengers by encouraging First West Coast Limited to invest in the future of the service.”
Yesterday, the RMT trade union staged over a hundred nationwide demonstrations opposing the announced increase in rail fares. Bob Crow, their general secretary, was at the Waterloo protest. He said of the DMT’s decision: “I predict that what you’ll see is investment will be less, hundreds of jobs will disappear on Virgin Trains, fares will continue to rise by inflation plus for the foreseeable fifteen years of franchise and the commuters will get a worse service.”