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’.

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