FirstGroup wins West Coast Main Line bid

The train service which connects London with Edinburgh, and brings passengers into Lancashire via Preston, will now be operated by FirstGroup after the company outbid current operator Virgin by more than £1bn.

Virgin secured the previous contract in 1997, increasing passenger levels from 13m to 31m per year and introducing high-speed, tilting trains. However, the company’s bid of £5.5bn to retain the contract – and a personal letter from Sir Richard Branson to the Prime Minister – fell short of the FirstGroup offer, estimated to be around £6.7bn to £7bn.

The contract lasts for 13 years and four months, beginning on December 9 and running until 2026. The Department for Transport said of the decision: “Another bidder contracted to pay significantly higher premiums to the DfT.”

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole said: “Our winning bid is a deliverable proposition that is compelling for all who want to see a greater use of our rail networks. We will be making significant improvements including reduced journey times and introducing new direct services.

“We will improve marketing and deliver a smart ticketing system, refreshed and improved train interiors, station upgrades and even better catering. In support of our commitment to generate increased passenger growth we will be reducing Standard Anytime fares by 15% on average.”

The company said that plans include direct services from new towns and cities, including linking Blackpool directly with London and doubling the number of services running from Preston.

Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Rail Group, said: “Naturally, we are all very disappointed by today’s announcement. We had submitted a strong, deliverable bid with emphasis on customer service which would have produced strong growth over the life of the franchise resulting in significant benefits for the taxpayer through generous premium payments to government.”