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Service cuts fears after Virgin loses West Coast Main Line contract
THE face of train travel through Cumbria and Lancashire is to change after Virgin Rail lost its West Coast Main Line franchise after 15 years.
Sir Richard Branson’s company was pipped by FirstGroup in the battle to operate the busiest railway in the country, which links London, the West Midlands, the North West, North Wales and Scotland.
FirstGroup is believed to have outbid Virgin - bidding as much as £7 billion - to operate the line from this December until 2026.
Sir Richard - whose firm took over running the line in 1997 - described today's Government decision as ‘very disappointing’.
And he stressed that cuts in quality and fare rises would have been inevitable if Virgin's bid was any higher.
He went on: “Sadly the Government has chosen to take that risk with First Group and we only hope they will continue to drive dramatic improvements on this line for years to come without letting everybody down.
“In the case of the East Coast Main line, both winners – GNER and National Express - over-promised in order to win the franchise and spectacularly ran into financial difficulties in trying to deliver their plans.
“The East Coast is still in Government ownership and its service is outdated and underinvested, costing passengers and the country dearly as a result.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When will the Department for Transport learn?”
Before the decision, RMT general secretary Bob Crow vowed to launch a ‘massive industrial, political and public campaign to stop any attacks on our members' jobs and the services that they provide to the travelling public’.
But FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole promised ‘significant improvements’, including reduced journey times.
“We are delighted to be selected by the Government to operate this unique railway, which connects communities across the country and plays a vital role in the UK's economic growth,” he said.
“In support of our commitment to generate increased passenger growth we will be reducing Standard Anytime fares by 15 per cent on average.”
FirstGroup plans to introduce 11 new 125mph six-car electric trains on the Birmingham-to-Glasgow route and provide more direct services between destinations.
The tilting, high-speed Pendolinos introduced to the WCML under Virgin in 2002 are expected to be rebranded.
The Government said FirstGroup’s new trains should add a further 12,000 seats a day on the WCML from 2016.
Some 3,000 Virgin employees - many based at stations like Oxenholme - will transfer to FirstGroup automatically.
FirstGroup owns 55 per cent of TransPennine Express - the firm which operates trains on the Lakes Line between Oxenholme and Windermere.
Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron said FirstGroup had not ‘covered itself with glory’ over proposed cuts to services between South Lakeland and Manchester.
“The fact that we now have a new operator of the West Coast Main Line could give FirstGroup the opportunity to increase prices while decreasing services,” said Mr Farron.
“This for me is a big worry and I will do everything I can to make sure that this does not happen.
“I want to meet FirstGroup bosses as soon as possible to talk to them about their plans for the route, protection of local jobs and further investment to upgrade Oxenholme station.”
When Virgin took over the WCML in 1997, it carried around 13 million passengers - a figure which has shot up to 31 million today.