PR Battle for the West Coast Main Line Franchise

Published 6th August 2012

PR Battle for the West Coast Main Line Franchise breaks out

London - A war of words has broken out between Virgin and First Group as they wait for the Government’s decision on the new West Coast Main Line franchise.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is due to announce who will operate the West Coast Main Line franchise by the end of August. Virgin Trains has operated it since privatisation in 1997 and been awarded several extensions as a result of the upgrade project.

Previous extensions

This overran in both time and budget terms and taking a decade to resemble completion. The latest franchise extension was made to avoid a change of ownership during the Olympics and to introduce the longer, and three new Pendolino trains. This project enabled 106 new carriages to enter increasing seats by 25%.

The new franchise will now run from December 2012 and the DfT’s prevarication added uncertainty and cost to the four bidders shortlisted for the franchise. These costs will be ultimately met by taxpayers! The franchise currently runs trains between London, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Holyhead using Pendolinos and diesel powered Voyagers.

Busiest Route in Europe?

The West Coast Main Line (WCML) is reckoned to be the busiest mixed traffic arterial route in Europe and has seen explosive growth in terms of trains and passengers in the last five years due to the upgrade. The new franchisee will run trains until 2026 by when the route is forecast to be well and truly at capacity. This is a major reason for the DfT building HS2 and electrifying other routes to provide not just fast services but freight paths all helping to alleviate the WCML.

Who will win?

The decision will probably be made on what the cost will be to the taxpayer. French Railways (SNCF) was shortlisted along with the Dutch Railways subsidiary, Abellio. Both of these appear to have now been ruled out which leaves the fight between incumbents, Virgin and the UK’s biggest rail group, First.

Service reliability is key to delivery which means the trains themselves must work well on NR’s infrastructure. Their overhead wires, points and signals have not been too reliable in the last year affecting performance. It was so bad that in the Spring, Virgin’s Managing Director, Chris Gibb was transferred to NR working for Robin Gisby in a joint effort to root out poor performance.

What might happen?

The DfT’s Train Service Specification for new Inter City West Coast franchise allows the winner to set service patterns and frequencies within broad guidelines. This means that so long as they adhere to the main requirements which specify the first and last trains, and meet the minimum numbers of station stops per week and per day, they are free to alter services as they wish.

This, the DfT say, moves away from their micro-management that has prevented operators from maximising capacity and reacting to the changing demands of their passengers in the past.

First Group

First Group are the UK’s rail operator and have been on a PR offensive this year putting out many press notices. They run the Great Western Main Line services and First Capital Connect through London between Bedford and Brighton plus Peterborough and Kings Lynn to Kings Cross. They also run the majority of trains in Scotland and the Transpennine Express services.


Virgin is 49% owned by Stagecoach and both have made tens of millions of pounds with revised contracts with the DfT which emerged out of the maligned WCML upgrade - which now is working well. Indeed, at the start of August, Virgin’s Chairman Richard Branson, warned The Transport Secretary Justine Greening not to be swayed by unrealistic bids, also copying the letter to the Prime Minister.

Numbers Game

There are reports that the competition is now between First Group and Virgin with the former underbidding by £1 billion. Branson is quoted as saying that this could only be made to pay by reducing services and quality. His company is reported as offering a payment of £6 billion over the life of the 14 year franchise. First have upped their offer to £7 billion for the same deal.

The DfT says this is the same as paying them £16 per passenger journey before operational costs are taken into consideration. Virgin has bid for the two previous East Coast Main Line Franchises which both reverted to the DfT after operator defaults.

Since Virgin began operating the West Coast franchise passenger figures have more than doubled from 14 million to 30 million. The former British Rail trains have all been replaced with 125mph tilting services and train is the preferred option over air on this route.

Virgin Satisfaction Survey

Virgin Trains has once again been given top marks by its customers, with the highest satisfaction ratings ever achieved in the National Passenger Survey by a long-distance rail franchise operator.

In an independent survey, rail watchdog Passenger Focus carries out large-scale independent research twice a year. Virgin Trains came out on top with the highest overall satisfaction rating ever achieved by a long-distance franchise since the Survey began in 1999.

91% of passengers were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the service they received and marked the sixth successive survey in which Virgin Trains came out on top of long-distance franchised operators.

Virgin Trains also achieved the highest ratings ever achieved by long-distance rail franchise operators on the speed of the journey, connections with other train services, room for passengers, ease of getting on and off our trains, and personal security while on board.

Only one thing is sure, whoever wins the Franchise, they will make the headlines!

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