Fears raised that fares could rise on West Coast Mainline routes from Preston

Preston railway station. The CMA examined routes starting in Preston
Preston railway station. The CMA examined routes starting in Preston
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A watchdog has raised concerns could rise on the West Coast mainline when it gets a new operator.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been looking into the award of West Coast Rail (WCR) to a joint venture between FirstGroup and Trenitalia, who won the franchise from existing provider Virgin.

The first phase of its probe found competition concerns relating to 21 routes – 17 between Preston and Scotland (terminating at Glasgow or Edinburgh) and four between Oxenholme and Carlisle.

The CMA said this is because passengers will only be able to choose from West Coast Rail – operated by a joint venture between FirstGroup and Trenitalia – for 17 routes, or TransPennine Express, operated solely by FirstGroup. On the four remaining routes, passengers can only choose from three operators in total: West Coast Rail, TransPennine Express and one other operator.

The CMA is concerned this could lead to higher fares and less availability of cheaper tickets because train passengers would have no alternatives, or limited options, to choose from.

The companies now have the opportunity to offer methods to address the CMA’s points.

In previous cases, such as the award of the East Midlands Rail franchise to Abellio and FirstGroup and MTR’s acquisition of South Western, the CMA’s concerns were resolved by the companies agreeing to price caps on affected lines.

However, should any proposals offered be considered insufficient by the CMA, a more in-depth 'Phase 2 investigation' will be conducted.

The CMA’s decision comes in advance of the start of the franchise, due to start on December 8 this year.

A spokesman for FirstGroup, said: "We have been discussing our plans for the new West Coast Partnership franchise with the CMA for several months and we are pleased that on the vast majority of routes, it has found no competition issues.

"Now that this update gives more clarity, we look forward to submitting our proposals which we envisage will satisfy their concerns."