19 AUGUST 2019


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Article from BTNews 19 AUGUST 2019

COMMENT: Virgin out! First Trenitalia in!

Last week, the Department for Transport announced that First Trenitalia had been successful in its bid to operate the West Coast Partnership, providing train services on the West Coast Main Line. This connects London with Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, writes Andrew Sharp

First Trenitalia is a partnership between Trenitalia, the primary Italian train operator, and First Group, an Aberdeen-based plc running the Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and Transpennine franchises.

The government press release says the partnership will deliver significant benefits for passengers. It is also designed to fit with the direction of the Williams Review into the future of the rail industry, to be published “in due course”.

The release adds that “it also reflects a significant move away from the previous flawed franchising system to tackle issues already highlighted by the Williams Review, with the use of a forecast revenue mechanism (FRM) to avoid a repeat of the issues that affected the previous East Coast Main Line.

“This mechanism will be supported by a new annual review process, to ensure partnership working is effective, collaborative and continually improving.”

This rather gilds the lily. A recent article in the railway press listed 30 rail reviews since 2007, showing that when John Major’s government embarked on what his predecessor called a privatisation too far, no-one knew what the optimal organisation for our railway industry was – and they still don’t.

First Trenitalia will also oversee the introduction of:

  • more flexible and convenient smart ticketing options
  • free wi-fi and high-quality mobile connectivity on board
  • improved delay repay compensation for all passengers
  • £32m of investment into developing and delivering infrastructure improvements
  • 10 new secure cycle storage facilities; improved bus facilities; 900 new car parking spaces, and 100 new electric vehicle charging points
  • new ticket machines at stations, removal of the administration fee and enabling on-the-day changes to both advance tickets and seat reservations
  • new initiatives to increase diversity, inclusion and skills retention in the rail industry.

There will be 23 new bi-mode (diesel + electric) trains ordered, replacing the diesel fleet used for ‘off the wires’ running to places like Shrewsbury and Holyhead. By 2022, the company will operate 260 more trains each week and increase the coverage of their services.

There will be two trains each hour between London and Liverpool, some stopping at Liverpool South Parkway for John Lennon Airport. The company will launch independently-chaired regional customer panels and appoint seven regional growth managers.

First Trenitalia will also act at the Shadow Operator responsible for HS2 – a complex task, for which a conventional franchise would never have worked. As the release notes: “The government will shortly launch a review into HS2 and the Partnership has been designed in order to ensure that it can implement the review’s outcomes.”

The outgoing franchisee, a partnership between Virgin Trains and Stagecoach, has run West Coast since 1997: it will be a hard act to follow. After working through a troubled major infrastructure upgrade, new high-frequency services were launched on the Birmingham and Manchester routes in particular.  It quickly killed off the Manchester to LCY air service.

It is very impressive to stand at Piccadilly Station in Manchester watching a Euston-bound train loading while a train from Euston arrives at the adjacent platform, and knowing that in 20min the train now arriving will then be loading and the next one from London will be arriving.

In the latest National Rail Passenger Survey, Virgin West Coast was the highest-rated long-distance operator. It was scored “satisfied or good” by 91% of respondents – above Hull Trains and Grand Central, which usually fight it out for top place with Heathrow Express.

Andrew Sharp is our railway expert.  For 14 years he was director-general of the International Air Rail Organisation.  Please see About BTNews.

(See Goodbye Virgin Trains? in this issue).

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Norman Bartlett, Chelmsford

Often overlooked is that this was essentially a Stagecoach operation. Virgin was the name on the front but Branson (Virgin) only had a minority interest

Fred Gorman, Mablethorpe

I do not think DfT like Virgin. This is not the first time they have passed them by operator. They became the operator who set standards for all else to follow. Begs the question on "open and transparent bidding process" DfT have been questioned before on this question. Will be sorry to see them disappear.