Virgin’s pledge to improve the lot of travellers on the West Coast mainline has been welcomed by a leading passenger group.
An extra 5,500 seats a day will be added to services between London and Glasgow, benefitting rail users through Lancashire. Blackpool will also get a direct service to and from the capital.
And Sir Richard Branson has promised to spend £35m on updating trains and £20m modernising stations as part of his £430m franchise to continue running the service.
Alan Fantom, of the Ormskirk, Preston and Southport Travellers Association (OPSTA) said: “Obviously we are happy to see mainline services improved. It’s great because more services help to connect more of us in the north with the south of England.
“But as a group we have bigger fish to fry. We are more concerned with getting Preston and Ormskirk a bit better connected.”
Virgin’s latest temporary deal for the West Coast service began yesterday and only stretches to 2017, with a probable year’s extension. Sir Richard, whose company has run the service since 1997, announced this week he would be “in there bidding” to extend the contract beyond that.
Customers, he said, would see “some extra services and a lot of extra seats. From the taxpayer point of view, they will get a lot of extra money.”
The new deal means trains will be updated, with improved wi-fi facilities amongst the improvements. The plan to upgrade stations will include modernising waiting rooms, seats and shelters.
It is almost two years since Virgin controversially lost out to First Group for the contract to run the line. Branson’s lawyers mounted a legal challenge, claiming the franchise bidding process had been mismanaged. The Government reinstated Virgin on a temporary contract and that was extended for two years this week.
The £430m deal is 58 per cent more than the company has been paying. The new contract will see 21 trains lose one of their first class carriages – they will be converted to general seating – and all 76 Pendolino and Super Voyager trains will get super-fast wi-fi, the first 4G service on inter-city services in the UK. The new service connecting Blackpool with London direct will start by December this year.
Patrick McCall, executive co-chairman of Virgin Trains, said: “We’re delighted to have reached a deal after some tough negotiations. This deal is great news for passengers and taxpayers, with significant benefits for our customers as well as a big increase in the money we pay to government.”
“We know wi-fi is high on our customers’ priorities and we’re delighted that we’re going to be able to offer them free and super-fast wi-fi. Together with thousands of extra seats and plans for new services, this deal will mean big improvements for millions of Virgin Trains passengers.”
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the Virgin deal would provide “thousands more seats and better journeys for the tens of thousands of passengers who use these services every day.”
He added: “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.”
But his Labour opposite number Mary Creagh, “This is the latest chapter in the botched West Coast franchise process, which has left passengers and taxpayers paying the price for government incompetence.
“The West Coast’s long-suffering passengers will welcome £35m of service improvements, but this franchise process has already cost taxpayers at least £50m directly and hundreds of millions of pounds more through delays.”
Transport unions have attacked the deal saying Virgin had been allowed to “bully” itself into being the monopoly provider.