THE Virgin West Coast franchise came to an end at 01.59 this morning, after more than 20 years of operation on the route by Richard Branson’s company and Stagecoach Group.
Operation has been transferred to the new West Coast Partnership, which is a consortium of FirstGroup and Italian operator Trenitalia.
Virgin Trains began running Intercity West Coast on 9 March 1997, and sold 49 per cent of its interest in the contract to Stagecoach Group the following year, with the franchising director giving approval on 8 October 1998.
Although some reports about Virgin’s departure have referred to a ‘22-year franchise’, in fact Virgin’s reign on the West Coast was based on several successive agreements, including a management contract between 22 July 2002 and 13 December 2006. The original contract was then reinstated, but with new terms to allow for the fact that the lagging modernisation programme on the West Coast Main Line meant that Virgin could not introduce the faster and more frequent services set out on its 1997 business plan.
During this time the Pendolino fleet entered service, using tilt technology originally devised by British Rail in the 1980s.
A modified ‘Very High Frequency’ schedule was introduced in 2008, including three trains an hour on the routes from London to Birmingham and Manchester.
The franchise then ran according to timetable until 2012, when the next West Coast franchise was awarded to FirstGroup. Virgin challenged the Department for Transport’s decision on the grounds that its calculations had been flawed, and after several months of debate the DfT accepted that it had been wrong, and cancelled the award.
Another series of contracts followed from 2012, and the last extension could have left Virgin and Stagecoach in control until at least April 2020, when the West Coast Partnership was due to start.
However, several bids from Stagecoach, including one for WCP, were ruled as non-compliant by the DfT in April this year, leaving the new contract to be taken over by FirstGroup and Trenitalia earlier than planned. Sir Richard Branson said he had been ‘devastated’ by the decision, and legal action is under way.
The last Virgin West Coast train from London to Manchester last night did not complete its journey, and was terminated at Stockport after a fault on the Pendolino working the service, while the first WCP train on the same route left at 08.10 today.
A formal launch is planned for tomorrow.