Virgin wins rail services rights, promises to link Blackpool with London

Blackpool will soon have a direct route to London as Virgin has finally secured the rights to the West Coast Main Line, promising extra seats and improved services as part of the deal.

Virgin TrainsThe new agreement for rail services on the West Coast Main Line promises to deliver thousands more seats, free wifi and pave the way for new journeys on the route, announced by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin.

The announcement follows months of public wrangling in 2012 and 2013, where the contract was initially offered to FirstGroup, then a proposed link to Blackpool was later shelved.

The direct award contract will run for two years and nine months and see the train operator continue to provide vital passenger journeys between London, Scotland and Wales.

The new contract will bring £35m worth of passenger benefits, including:

  • 21 first-class carriages converted to standard class, delivering 5,500 extra standard seats per day across the network;
  • free wifi at stations and improved coverage across the entire fleet;
  • more than £20m invested to modernise and enhance stations, including improving waiting rooms, seats and shelters;
  • £2.5m to improve the interiors of the Pendolino train fleet, as well as £2.75m spent on improving catering facilities;
  • improved station cleanliness and accessibility;
  • new targets for passenger satisfaction, train punctuality and cleanliness; and
  • plans developed to increase car parking at Carlisle, Lancaster and Stafford.
In addition, Virgin will now start work to secure new direct services between Shrewsbury, Blackpool and London from December, boosting connections for passengers and local businesses.

The deal will also create jobs, including apprenticeships and traineeships, underlining the government’s commitment to get more people into work.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “This deal will provide thousands more seats and better journeys for the tens of thousands of passengers who use these services every day. The West Coast provides a vital artery between London and Scotland and it is crucial we do everything we can to improve services on this much-used route.

“This is further proof of our commitment to get the best deal for passengers and taxpayers with Virgin set to pay more than £430m to run the franchise. It’s all part of our long-term economic plan to drive forward our economy and provide better services now and great services with HS2.”

The deal covers a strategically important route in the UK providing commuter, leisure and business journeys between London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Strathclyde and Lothian for more than 30 million passengers annually.

The company has also committed to working with Network Rail, communities and stakeholders to look at how further improvements in journey times can be made from London to Scotland. This includes work to remodel Carstairs junction – a significant bottleneck on the network.

Patrick McCall, Virgin Trains executive co-chairman, said: “We’re delighted to have reached a deal after some tough negotiations with the DfT. It puts the problems of 2012 firmly behind us, and shows the clear benefits of a well-run franchise system."

The company will now submit plans to the Office of Rail Regulation to extend current services from London. Under the plans Blackpool North would have one service to London in each direction Monday to Friday.

As part of the deal the company has committed to employing at least 30 apprentices, 18 trainees, four Network Rail Track and Train graduate placements, 12 Virgin Red Track scheme participants and 12 ex-offenders through the St Giles Trust. The new agreement will run until April 2017 when a new competed long-term franchise is expected to commence. The contract is the sixth direct award to be delivered by the Department following the relaunch of its franchising schedule in March last year. Industry expert Richard Brown in his independent report into franchising had advised staggering competitions to make them more deliverable. The government announced a programme of direct awards to deliver this.