Rivals slug it out to take over Blackpool to London rail route

Rival bids to add more daily direct train journeys between Blackpool and London have been submitted.

Wednesday, 21st June 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 21st June 2017, 3:19 pm
Virgin Trains' Pendolino
Virgin Trains' Pendolino

wo firms – Virgin Trains and Alliance Rail – want to run services to and from the capital that would serve more than 1,000 passengers a day.

Rail chiefs will now consider the bids, which could see extra trains on the line as early as May next year, once the ongoing electrification work is complete.

Virgin wants to run an extra three services a day in each direction during the week, while Alliance proposes twice as many, although it is thought it would use slower trains and those services would not start until 2019.

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East Coast train operated by Alliance

Fylde MP Mark Menzies, who has campaigned for improved rail links between the Fylde coast and London, said: “It’s good news for business people needing to travel to the capital, and for those who want to do business in Fylde.”

Virgin relaunched a direct route from Blackpool to London in 2014 with just one train in each direction.

In its submission to the ORR Virgin said it had seen increased demand for that train.

The application says: “The additional rights are being sought to operate additional services from London Euston to Blackpool North.

East Coast train operated by Alliance

“Since we began operations to Blackpool North in December 2014 demand has increased and this application seeks to cater for that growth, which is expected to increase further post-electrification.”

Alliance Rail – owned by Arriva, itself a subsidiary of the German state railway Deutsche Bahn – had previously agreed with the ORR to operate as many as eight trains a day between Blackpool North and London, starting in May next year.

However, the company ran into difficulties sourcing the trains it needed to begin the service.

The firm has now gone back to the drawing board, submitting proposals using second-hand electric trains which are due to be withdrawn by Virgin East Coast in 2019.

A spokesman said: “Despite the best efforts of many parties, including manufacturer ALSTOM and the DfT, Alliance has been unable to secure the necessary access to tilting rolling stock to enable it to deliver its full Blackpool to Euston service as approved in 2015.

“As a result Alliance and the ORR has agreed that its contract to run services will lapse on June 30, 2017.

“In its place Alliance is seeking new approvals to operate the same number of daily services between Blackpool and Euston starting in the first half of 2019 using electric locomotives and coaches currently in use on the East Coast Main Line.”

Alliance has confirmed it would include stops at Kirkham and Poulton.

Virgin has also indicated it would like its trains to stop at Poulton and Kirkham and is looking for a ‘cost effective’ solution to the fact its trains would not fit into the platforms at either station.

What is being proposed?

In the documents submitted to the ORR Virgin gives details of the services it could introduce.

Under the proposals there would be three additional departures from London Euston to Blackpool, leaving the capital at 6.46am, 8.53am and 10.53am with return journeys from Blackpool at 10.45am, 12.45pm and 2.45pm.

All of the new services would be operated by 125mph tilting Pendolino electric trains.

With Pendolino trains made up of nine or 11 coaches seating up to 550 passengers the proposals could provide more than 1,500 extra seats in each direction.

A Virgin trains spokesman said: “We’re always looking for ways to improve the service we provide to customers which can include increasing the frequency of our trains.”

Alliance Rail has submitted fresh proposals to the ORR for direct trains between London and Blackpool.

It is now suggesting it could commence services in May 2019.

It wants to run six trains in each direction every weekday, five on Saturdays and four trains every Sunday. Each train would have a capacity of around 400 seats.

The 20-year-old trains it is suggesting using would be limited to 110mph.

The company has given no details in its application documents of what times the trains would operate.

A spokesman said: “Positive discussions with leasing company Eversholt have been on-going for some time, and services would operate with seven passenger vehicles.

“In order to maintain competitive end to end journey times of around three hours, the stopping pattern has unfortunately had to be reduced, with trains now calling only at Preston, Nuneaton and Milton Keynes on the main line.

“Stops in all services at Poulton-le-Fylde and Kirkham and Wesham, an important part of the original ORR decision, are maintained.”

What happens now?

Both bids are now subject to industry consultation, due to end in early July and being carried out by Network Rail.

After that, Network Rail will make a recommendation to the ORR of which services should go ahead.

The Gazette understands the ORR has the powers to accept or reject both bids, accept one and reject another or accept parts of each proposal.

Why the sudden rush?

The main rail line between Blackpool and Preston is currently being upgraded by Network Rail as part of a multi-million pound scheme to improve railways across the North West. As part of the proposals the line is being electrified.

That gives operators the option of bringing faster, longer trains into the resort, including Virgin’s tilting Pendolino trains – the backbone of the company’s fleet.

It makes direct services to London more commercially viable.

Alliance Rail believes there is a gap in the market it can exploit with direct services while Virgin believes demand is high enough on its existing trains to expand in the resort.