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.