Sir Richard Branson's Virgin loses West Coast main line franchise to FirstGroup

Virgin Rail lost out to transport giant FirstGroup. Credit: Geoff Caddick/PA Archive

Sir Richard Branson has lost the battle to continue running the West Coast main line that his Virgin Rail company has been operating since 1997.

The Government announced that the fight to take over a new 13-year West Coast franchise had been won by FirstGroup.

Transport company FirstGroup, which already has a number of rail franchises including Great Western and ScotRail, will start operating the London to Scotland West Coast line in December.

Rail Minister Theresa Villiers said the new franchise would deliver "big improvements for passengers".

Sir Richard Branson tweeted a statement where he said he was "extremely disappointed" with the decision, the franchise system was "flawed" and it was "extremely unlikely" that Virgin would bid again for a franchise.

Virgin Rail is 49% owned by another giant transport company Stagecoach which said that it was disappointed that its bid with Virgin to continue running the franchise had been unsuccessful.

It said it understood that Virgin was the Department for Transport's second-choice bidder and that that the reason it failed to win the new franchise was "because another bidder contracted to pay significantly higher premiums to the DfT".

After winning the franchise, FirstGroup announced a long list of promises, here are some of them:

  • From December 2016; 11 new six-car electric 125mph trains and 12,000 more seats per day.

  • Cut the cost of West Coast standard anytime fares by an average of 15% within the first two years.

  • Improved journey time of 15 minutes between London and Glasgow.

  • First West Coast is taking over responsibility for maintenance at 17 stations and will spend at least £22 million on a station investment programme.

  • New direct service from London to Blackpool, Telford, Shrewsbury and Bolton.

  • No job cuts to train staff or drivers.

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole said the company was delighted to win the franchise.

The Department for Transport said the franchise deal was worth £5.5 billion over the lifetime of the contract. The new franchise will begin on December 9 and will run for 13 years and four months.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said:

Virgin - who have operated the West Coast line for 15 years - saw an increase of passenger levels from around 13 million a year in 1997 to around 31 million a year now.