After months of speculation, it’s been confirmed Virgin Trains have lost control of the West Coast rail line.

FirstGroup have, via the infinitely baffling wisdom of our government, been awarded the contract, after bidding over £1bn more than Virgin for the line, which covers London to Glasgow (and, crucially for us lot, Liverpool to London). Sir Richard Branson reckons FirstGroup have overpaid, potentially putting Virgin Trains out of business, and it’s destined for disaster: “We did not want to risk letting everybody down with almost certain bankruptcy at some time during the franchise as happened to GNER and National Express, who overbid on the East Coast mainline”, he blogged this morning.

We’ve never really had a major issue with Virgin – trains were usually clean, fast, and (in the main) always on time. Many of us travel regularly down to London Euston, taking just over 2hrs and costing on average about £70 return, but as low as thirty quid if you book in advance. There were some niggles many commuters had – an unsuitable standard class-to-first class ratio was one of the biggest, along with an extension of peak hours and a dip in customer service – but in the main it’s been reliable and pretty affordable. They’ve invested a lot over recent years, and it was finally looking to be paying off with a decent service.

How will this changeover, due in December, affect things? FirstGroup are promising the world: new trains! More services! Fast wifi! Cheaper fares (yeah right)! But, as anyone who’s ever travelled on a First Train knows, especially their Transpennine Express, they’re terrible. Virgin have a proven track record in running this West Coast line. FirstGroup have a less-than-favourable history: their list of disasters, failures, complaints and pull-outs in whatever they do is as long as Richard Branson’s bank statement.

Most notably, FirstGroup recently handed back the First Great Western franchise (three years early) because its contract was said to be “uneconomic”: by using an early release loophole in its contract, they avoided paying nearly £830m to the Government. And now the Government have handed them another contract. Bonkers. Will the same situation happen here? Is £5.5bn for the line just far too high for the amount of service they’ll actually get?

So this has all the hallmarks of a failure waiting to happen. Along with this week’s train fare price hike, it looks like commuters will be paying more for a worse service: but that’s what you get when there’s a monopoly, right? Standards are inevitably left to slip, and consumers end up paying more. Basically, we’re hostages to this.

We’ll be pretty sad to see Virgin go, but Branson is expected to push for a judicial review of the decision, the first of its kind within the rail industry, in the next few weeks.

13 Responses to “Virgin Trains lose West Coast rail line contract. Oh dear.”

  1. Oh flipping heck, I hope Branson gets it back, cos those FirstGroup folk are going to make a mess out of it, and I absolutely do not think fares will be cheaper for one minute. I’m going to start doing a taxi service to London in my car, it’ll be cheaper than the train if we get a car full, anyone interested?! Or one at a time on the back of my bike?! It’ll be fun!

  2. I think it’s an utter disgrace. After all the investment Virgin have done over the years and how the service has improved, does this dedication to the service stand for nothing. The Government must under stand the impact this will have on the regions industry and tourism sectors. I second the judicial review and think the regions should show their support for Branson in the form of a e-petition.

  3. Everard

    Not sure how the “infinitely baffling wisdom of our government” can be applied to awarding a contract to a company bidding £1bn more. Are they expected to accept a lower bid? If so, I’m sure similar opinion pieces would be moaning about an unfair advantage held by Branson.

    Virgin were good on this service. Generally on time and with well designed trains that allow people to work, relax and socialise without impeding on each other too much.

    We’ll see about First. Personally I’ve found their TransPennine service improving recently and the legroom is superior to that of Virgin.

  4. SevenStreets

    @Everard – it’s baffling because First Group have already defaulted once on a contract like this (First Great Western, see above) because they deemed it unprofitable and unworkable.

  5. This service will be sorely missed. I always go Liverpool -> London and it’s part of the holiday itself; getting into that red tunnel of love is like a hug from Hagrid on a cold day. I’ve used Transpennine before, they quite lack stopping at station for a long time, with no explanation to the passengers about why the train is sitting between stations. Rubbish service and devastating news. Goodnight sweet prince.

  6. I loved the Euston train – the novelty of that two-hour journey. TWO HOURS! And it was always so comfortable, so clean. It’s also a beautiful journey.

    In stark contrast to the Transpennine, which is vile.

    I love the East Coast Mainline – that London to Edinburgh train has a real old-world elegance to it. Was lucky enough to travel in first-class a couple of times. Utterly ludicrous.

    But the Pendolinos are a tech wonder. And Virgin never let me down in all that time. So sad news for me.

  7. I used to travel on GNER London-Edinburgh about 10-12 years ago and that did have a feel of a proper, beautiful journey, speaking as someone who didn’t grow up with trains. The rolling stock hasn’t changed since then, but it’s not the same. And I took the Liverpool-London Pendolinos every couple of monts for the last 5 years and almost always had a pleasant journey, comfortable seats etc. I’m not convinced about First’s capabilities of running those routes to the same standard given the perpetually overcrowded TPEs and better, but not solidly reliable, Manchester Airport service. Time will tell.

  8. Everard

    Also there is a new batch of pendolinos being rolled out which will be used by First so a lot will be down to the management, service and pricing rather than the aesthetics of the trains.

  9. Doc Daneeka

    Everard the problem with the First Contract is that they stuck the extra £800m above what Virgin where promising to the government in the last 3 years of the 15 year contract and yet the additional maximum penatly is only up to £180m. This leads many to look at Firsts woeful track record and conclude that they added a huge chunk of cash at the end of the bid that they have no inention of actually paying and that they’ll either try and renegotiate or just hand back the keys and the penalty won’t even touch the sides of the giant pot they made out of it.

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