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Shrewsbury station


Virgin ‘extremely unlikely’ to bid again


FirstGroup is celebrating its victory in the race to become the next operator of West Coast Main Line services, but the DfT’s decision was branded “insanity” by Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Branson, who has suggested his company is now out of the rail game for good.


Direct links to London welcomed after


FirstGroup WCML win


Among those benefiting from FirstGroup’s West Coast win are Shrewsbury, Bolton, Telford and Blackpool, which will get direct services to and from London.


Blackpool services will come in by 2013, and the others from 2016. Virgin used to offer direct London services from Shropshire but scrapped them, and more recently open access operator Wrexham & Shropshire ran direct services until its collapse last year – but that was a slow journey via Banbury into Marylebone, rather than on the WCML.


Richard Sheehan, of Shropshire Chamber of Commerce, said: “It is fantastic to hear potentially we will have this service back and the travel bosses have actually listened to the voice of business and the voice of the public.”


Cllr Kuldip Sahota, leader of Telford & Wrekin Council, said the council was “obviously delighted”, but wanted services introduced before 2016.


Paul Nettleton, chairman of the Blackpool and Fylde Rail User’s Association, said: “It’s great news. Nobody is going to miss Virgin – they ended the last service.”


4 | rail technology magazine Aug/Sep 12


FirstGroup will run services from 9 December 2012 to 31 March 2026, potentially as ‘Horizon Trains’, and will introduce 11 new six-car electric trains from 2016 to increase capacity. This is on top of the 106 extra Pendolino carriages currently being introduced on the WCML.


It has promised faster London- Glasgow services, a £22m upgrade of the 17 stations it will take over, and a cut in Standard Anytime fares of 15% in its first two years.


FirstGroup chief executive Tim O’Toole said its bid was “underpinned by sustainable growth in passenger numbers and revenues”, which has met with scepticism in parts of the industry and outright incredulity from Branson, who is angry at the DfT’s willingness to prioritise “unrealistic” bids over service delivery and performance.


He said topping FirstGroup’s


£5.5bn bid – Virgin bid about £4.8bn in payments to the Government – would have risked “almost certain bankruptcy…as happened to GNER and National Express who overbid on the East Coast Main Line”.


The last three times Virgin was out-bid for a franchise, he said, the winning TOC has “has come nowhere close to delivering their promised plans and revenue”,


© D@LY3D


adding: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When will the DfT learn?”


O’Toole told the Daily Mail that Branson’s allegations were “outrageous”, saying: “Branson has lost and he is off the field now…Had he won, he was planning to cut twice as much as he said we would have cut. And if he had won with his bid, he would have made a huge amount of money. Maybe that explains his hysteria.”


Reaction to FirstGroup win


Concerns have been raised over FirstGroup’s chances of delivering such a high-value bid.


RMT general secretary Bob Crow said the union was seeking “urgent and cast iron guarantees” that members’ jobs were safe and threatened strike ballots if services were cut.


Passenger Focus’s David Sidebottom said: “The important thing is not the name on the side of the train, but the experience


of the journey, the availability of staff when you need them and of course the value for money.”


Cllr Liam Robinson, who chairs Merseytravel, specified an aspiration for two trains per hour between London and Liverpool, while Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon in north-west Wales, Hywel Williams, called for more direct services from Wales to London and to Manchester Airport.


Ahead of the announcement,


Virgin offered WCML ‘deliverability’ – DfT scoring system


Virgin Rail was assessed as the top bidder for ‘deliverability’ in the DfT scoring matrix for the WCML, reports suggest, but lost out to FirstGroup on other measures, such as customer service and fleet delivery.


The Telegraph newspaper reported that Virgin’s win on


‘deliverability’ covers things like timetabling for forecast demand and improvements to service quality.


Virgin is also thought to have bid around £0.7bn less than FirstGroup’s £5.5bn in payments to


the Government franchise period. over the


Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, warned: “It would be unacceptable if passengers ended up having to pay even higher fares to enable operators to honour the commitments they have made.”


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