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West Coast franchise awarded to FirstGroup

FirstGroup has been awarded the West Coast franchise, the Government has announced. Rival bidder Virgin Trains, which will lose its last UK rail contract, has warned that FirstGroup’s financially impressive bid is unachievable, and will lead to service cuts and fare hikes.

The contract will run from 9 December 2012 to 31 March 2026. Under the name of First West Coast Ltd – but potentially operating the franchise as ‘Horizon Trains’, reports suggest – the operator has pledged to introduce 11 new six-car electric trains from 2016 to increase capacity.

This will follow 106 extra Pendolino carriages currently being introduced into operation on the franchise, to provide over 28,000 additional seats.

FirstGroup is also planning journey time improvements on the London to Glasgow route and is taking over maintenance responsibility at 17 stations, where it will spend £22m on a station improvement programme.

New services are planned from Blackpool to London from 2013 and from Telford, Shrewsbury and Bolton from 2016.

The operator has also committed to cut the cost of ‘Standard Anytime’ fares by an average of 15% within the first two years and smart ticketing will be introduced.

Rail minister Theresa Villiers said: “This new franchise will deliver big improvements for passengers, with more seats and plans for more services.

“The West Coast is the first of the new longer franchises to be let by the Coalition which has helped us secure real benefits for passengers by encouraging First West Coast Limited to invest in the future of the service.”

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole said: “We will be making significant improvements including reduced journey times and introducing new direct services.

“Our bid also delivers value for taxpayers by returning premiums to the government underpinned by sustainable growth in passenger numbers and revenues from the utilisation of significant available capacity.” 

Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Rail Group, said it was the saddest day of his professional career, but added: “Our focus for the remaining four months of the current franchise will be to continue to offer a high quality service to our customers, who we would like to thank for their loyalty over the past 15 years, and hand over a healthy and efficient franchise to the new operator on 9 December.”

Unions and rail campaigners have argued jobs will be cut, fares will rise and catering services will be cut back. There are also some concerns over whether FirstGroup will ‘hand the keys back’ for the franchise, as it did when the operator handed back the First Great Western franchise three years early through a break clause in the contract.

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at [email protected]  


Mikeyb   15/08/2012 at 17:17

No doubt, over the next couple of weeks, there will be howls of anti-First Group rhetoric from those who have had bad experiences on their services. Let's give them the opportunity to prove that their promises are genuine and that there will be no reduction in services or frequencies. However, if after a few years they go back on their words and passengers begin experiencing cuts, then they should have the franchise taken off them.

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