The Department for Transport has insisted that the new West Coast rail franchise represents a new model for railway operation that is a “departure from flawed systems of the past”.
It was today announced that a joint venture of transport company First Group and Italian state rail operator Trenitalia will take over the running of the line from December, with a contract to run until 2031.
The operator will replace Virgin Trains, which has operated the route since privatisation in 1997. Virgin is a joint venture between Stagecoach and the Virgin Group, but it was banned from bidding to retain the line after the DfT said it had submitted “non-compliant” bids for another route amid a dispute over a pensions funding black hole.
The new partnership plan for West Coast is intended to improve the working arrangements between the rail franchise operator and state-owned infrastructure firm Network Rail.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the franchise would also be in line with the emerging recommendations of the department’s rail review, which is chaired by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams. Williams has already stated that franchising “cannot continue the way it is today [as] it is no longer delivering clear benefits for either taxpayers and farepayers”.
Shapps said today’s award, which will also mean the introduction of new trains and 263 extra services every week, was “positive news for passengers, with more services, more direct connections and ambitious plans for a cleaner, greener railway, and also represents a decisive shift towards a new model for rail”.
He added: “It is a partnership supported by Keith Williams, built with the flexibility to respond to his recommendations and deliver fundamental reform to a flawed system. Meeting Keith last week confirmed our shared determination to deliver a future that puts passengers at the heart of the railways, and get our trains to run on time.
“That is why I have asked Keith to produce his recommendations for a white paper, with fearless proposals that will deliver a railway system fit for the 21st century."
DfT said it had used a new financial measure, called the forecast revenue mechanism, to avoid a repeat of the problems on the East Coast mainline, where franchises have twice been taken over by government as a result of unrealistic revenue projections. This mechanism will be supported by an annual review process to ensure partnerships work effectively, the department said.
Williams said that the railway “needs reform that prioritises the customers and communities it serves, with an absolute focus on delivering benefits for passengers”.
But he said his review should not delay investment and innovation.
“This West Coast Partnership delivers for passengers. It is a step forward that is firmly in line with the review, introducing benefits for passengers today and capable of incorporating the reforms needed for the future.”
Among the planned service changes are the introduction of more smart ticketing options, as well as free onboard wifi and improved onboard mobile connectivity, and better compensation for delayed passengers.
Extra services will mean new destinations for the franchise, including routes from London to Llandudno and Gobowen, while Walsall will receive its first direct intercity services. Two trains per hour will run between Liverpool and London, subject to approval from the Office of Rail and Road watchdog, while Motherwell will become a major calling point for most West Coast Partnership services.
First Trenitalia will also act at the shadow operator responsible for the High Speed 2 rail route, although a government review into whether to give the final go-ahead to the line is expected later this year.