Posted 20th May 2024 | 2 Comments

Virgin takes ‘first step’ towards reviving West Coast services

Virgin Group has confirmed reports that it has applied to the Office of Rail and Road for open access rights on the West Coast Main Line.

The move comes only days after FirstGroup, which owns the majority of Avanti West Coast, said it was applying to run open access services between Rochdale and London.

Virgin lost its long-running Intercity West Coast operation in 2019, when it was barred, along with Stagecoach, from bidding for the replacement contract in a dispute with the Department for Transport in a dispute over the liability of train operators for railway pension deficits. The new franchise was won by a consortium of FirstGroup and Trenitalia, trading as Avanti West Coast, which was launched in December 2019.

Virgin’s plans are the most ambitious ever proposed by a potential open access operator, because it wants to run between London, Birmingham and Manchester, and also to Liverpool and Glasgow, offering hourly services to most of those cities and two-hourly to Glasgow. It would also serve Rochdale.

It is said to be planning to use ‘ten carriage’ trains, although nothing more has been said about where they would come from or how they would be funded or powered, or if they could be newly-built.

The Office of Rail and Road will consider the proportion of revenue abstraction from existing operators with government contracts. Any abstraction would mainly affect Avanti West Coast, but London Northwestern and Chiltern Railways could also lose business between London and Birmingham.

It is also not clear whether enough paths would be available on the congested West Coast Main Line, particularly through the West Midlands and south of Rugby, but one report claims that Virgin would be applying to take over some paths now held by Avanti West Coast on two routes. If true, this would be the first time that paths have been transferred from a contracted operator to an open access operation.

Virgin Group is quoted as saying that the application is ‘just the first step towards exploring what might be possible’, adding: ‘We’re confident customers would welcome Virgin Trains back, providing them with much-needed choice and competition.’

Labour has said that if it is elected the operators with National Rail Contracts, who used to hold franchises, would be ‘folded’ into state-owned Great British Railways as their contracts expire, but it has not said it would end open access passenger operations.

However, it also said that the Office of Rail and Road would ‘make approval decisions on open access applications on the basis of an updated framework and guidance issued by the Secretary of State’.

Reader Comments:

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  • david C smith, Bletchley

    During the late part of the BR era, "Sectorisation"seemed to be a well regarded policy. That sector that became "Intercity"could probably have succeeded as a commercial venture, especially if receiving a subsidy boost from government in order to incentivise "hidden" benefits given by these services.

    The Competition and Monopolies Authority made a study several years ago into the alternatives to franchising, and their concluding fourth possible alternative involved free competition within this Intercity sector, in which potential operators would bid for "bundles of paths". Might be of relevance to questions above ?

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    As would be expected with Virgin an eye catching bid. But is this just headline grabbing over practicality. The ORR now has the unenviable task of ruling over several competing bids for WCML access no doubt competing over the same white space in the timetable. And this raises an important question regarding the policy direction of government though DfT to Open Access and what protection is given to the contracted operators who let's be reminded provide the majority of timetabled services.

    In the dying days of the current government policy has clearly changed to encourage Open Access operators so much so that directly contracted operators are already being directed to withdraw 'underused' services in the name of cost savings where Open Access competitors operate or are proposing to operate. Seeing the ambition from Virgin to directy compete against the incumbent, and increasingly derided, operator Avanti rather than bidding for timetable whitespace are we to see a direct challenge to use existing paths? As Avanti continue to underperform not all pre covid services have been reinstated & paths identified for service enhancement, such as additional Liverpool services, remain unused.