Published: 3rd March 2015
In shades of the run-up to the 1997 election when the final rail franchise was let, the Government owned East Coast Trains (ECT) was privatised on March 1st - under 10 weeks before the 2015 election.
The new operator is a joint venture known as Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) owned 90% by Stagecoach and 10% by Virgin with the contract due to run until the end of March 2023 but with a possible one year extension. The grey and claret livery used by ECT will be changed to be branded Virgin with their recognisable red and white and Virgin logo.
Part of the franchise specification was to use the 65 DfT procured Hitachi Intercity Express Programme (IEP) trains in three years’ time and the first one is due to arrive in Southampton on March 12. There has been speculation about exactly what the DfT has ordered in the way of the on-board food offer.
VTEC says ‘It is our clear intention to have buffet cars on the new trains and we are already in discussions with our supplier Hitachi regarding the layout of the carriages’.
In the meanwhile, VTEC says that they have ‘exciting plans to improve the existing refreshments offer, with at-seat food ordering and hot food available to all passengers in Standard Class’ and is also planning to bring back freshly cooked breakfasts for all its First Class customers as part of a series of catering improvements planned over the next two years.
The existing British Rail late 1980s built fleet will have £21million spent on it in the next two years to improve reliability while the interiors will be refurbished including the toilets. New carpets, seat covers and clearer on-train signage will be fitted.
The new franchisee has launched a new passenger’s charter and will change the ECT Loyalty Scheme and publish what is called a ‘customer report’ twice a year. The first was published on 1 March and contained details about how passengers can get involved with VTEC.
They will be introducing ‘Customer Zones’ which are open plan areas for combined ticket purchase, information and assistance. This will help deal with the expected increase in passengers as the routes are expanded and more trains operate once the full IEP fleet has been delivered. VTEC says it has no plans to close booking offices or shorten their opening hours. More than £25m will be invested in stations and car parks along the route.
One headline grabbing act will be to reduce the Standard Anytime fares on long distance journeys to/from London by 10% from May 2015. And any tickets purchased from ECT for travel after the new operator starts will be valid. But the ECT passenger loyalty scheme will be replaced by a new VTEC loyalty scheme with Nectar and participants will be able to redeem their existing ECT rewards until 30 September 2015 or convert them to Nectar points.
Virgin Trains East Coast is the brand name of InterCity Railways Ltd (ICR), which is owned by Stagecoach Group (90%) and Virgin Group (10%). Virgin Trains East Coast began operating services on the East Coast Main Line on Sunday 1 March 2015, serving key UK cities including London, Peterborough, Doncaster, Leeds, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness. Trains will also serve Sunderland and Stirling from December 2015. From 2019, VTEC trains will serve Middlesbrough and a two-hourly service between Harrogate, Huddersfield and Bradford and London.
Claire Perry, Transport Minister, said (after arriving some 20 minutes late): “Today is the start of a new chapter for the East Coast franchise. Passengers will benefit from thousands of extra seats, new connections and improved services between London and Scotland. The deal also means more than £3bn will be returned to taxpayers.
David Horne, Managing Director of Virgin Trains East Coast added, “Passengers using the East Coast mainline are already set to benefit from hundreds of millions of pounds of infrastructure investment and service improvements over the next decade. Our new ‘Customer and Communities Improvement Fund’ builds on that but puts the decision-making power firmly in the hands of the customers and communities we serve.
Patrick McCall, Senior Partner, Virgin Group, said, “Our partnership will concentrate on areas for which Virgin is famous, such as looking after our customers and our people. We have a great opportunity to blend the successes of the East Coast and the West Coast lines to create a great experience for all. Together with these new ideas and initiatives, passengers will begin to see those Virgin touches on each and every journey.”
VTEC also say that their venture will transform the customer experience for around 20 million journeys a year on one of the UK’s major inter-city rail routes, blending the experience, culture and service-focus of both Stagecoach and Virgin.