FirstGroup win the West Coast Mainline rail franchise
It has just been announced that FirstGroup, the parent company who operate amongst others First Capital Connect and First Great Western, have beaten Virgin Rail and will take over the West Coast Mainline rail franchise from December. The West Coast Mainline route serves London, the West Midlands, the North West, North Wales and the Central Belt of Scotland and is one that I know well having used it regularly to travel between London and Lancashire as a student.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Rail, of which 49% is owned by Stagecoach, took over the franchise in 1997 and I have to say that I found the service he provided to be, in the main, perfectly satisfactory. Yes, indeed, there were problems and the 2007 Grayrigg accident did indeed cause considerable disruption, but Virgin’s “tank-like” Pendolino trains were much better than the older trains that they replaced and services did improve during Virgin’s tenure. Many grumbled, however, about fares but frankly they were comparable to those of all other operators throughout the land.
With a government under pressure to get the best deal and the “best value for the taxpayer” according to Richard Westcott, the BBC’s transport correspondent, the attraction of the FirstGroup bid was not only that the £5.5 billion figure offered was far higher than that of the other tenders. FirstGroup also beat Virgin’s £160 million annual service payments with an offer of £390 million and offered £22 million to improve 17 stations on the route. They will also further improve the existing Pendolino trains, provide 11 new 125mph trains and offer new direct services to from London to Blackpool, Telford, Shrewsbury and Bolton.
FirstGroup based their bid on their belief that there is spare capacity on the line and that train usage will grow at an incredible rate. Their bid is linked to a £45 million performance bond that they would have to forfeit if they walk away, as other operators have previously done elsewhere, from the contract.
In a leaked letter to the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, Sir Richard Branson claimed what the FirstGroup have offered will “drastically cut the quality of services.” He is likely to challenge today’s decision in the courts but for West Coast Mainline rail users, one can only hope that FirstGroup truly will deliver what they promise.