08 December 2019 14:38
The West Coast main line linking London Euston with the West Midlands, northwest England, North Wales and Scotland is under new management. After 22 years, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Trains company has been replaced on the line by a new operator called Avanti. Why the change – and what will it mean for passengers? Download the new Indpendent Premium app Sharing the full story, not just the headlines It was the 20th century when Virgin Trains was first launched. What were the railways like at the time?
In the mid-1990s, the railways were fully nationalised but appeared to be in long-term decline, caused by the growth of car ownership and lack of investment in train travel. World's best train journeys Show all 10 left Created with Sketch. right Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. World's best train journeys 1/10 Belmond Andean Explorer Explore Peru with this luxury train service Belmond 2/10 Coast Starlight Gorgeous: take in the scenery on a train ride from Seattle to Los Angeles Amtrak 3/10 TranzAlpine See stunning views on this New Zealand train journey TranzAlpine 4/10 Rovos Rail This rail service takes you to the heart of Africa Rovos Rail 5/10 Interregional Portugal Explore all the beauty Portugal has to offer by train Interregional Portugal 6/10 Glacier Express Take in jaw-dropping views of Switzerland from a train Glacier Express 7/10 East Lancashire Railway Travelling back in time in northern England East Lancashire Railway 8/10 Durango & Silverton Enjoy one of America's most scenic train rides Durango & Silverton 9/10 Caledonian Sleeper Wake up to the beauty of Scotland with this overnight train Peter Devlin 10/10 Belmond Eastern & Oriental A breezy observation car on a luxury Asian train Belmond 1/10 Belmond Andean Explorer Explore Peru with this luxury train service Belmond 2/10 Coast Starlight Gorgeous: take in the scenery on a train ride from Seattle to Los Angeles Amtrak 3/10 TranzAlpine See stunning views on this New Zealand train journey TranzAlpine 4/10 Rovos Rail This rail service takes you to the heart of Africa Rovos Rail 5/10 Interregional Portugal Explore all the beauty Portugal has to offer by train Interregional Portugal 6/10 Glacier Express Take in jaw-dropping views of Switzerland from a train Glacier Express 7/10 East Lancashire Railway Travelling back in time in northern England East Lancashire Railway 8/10 Durango & Silverton Enjoy one of America's most scenic train rides Durango & Silverton 9/10 Caledonian Sleeper Wake up to the beauty of Scotland with this overnight train Peter Devlin 10/10 Belmond Eastern & Oriental A breezy observation car on a luxury Asian train Belmond While the East Coast main line between London King's Cross, Yorkshire, Newcastle and Edinburgh had been electrified and provided with new trains, the West Coast route had some of the oldest rolling stock on the railways. On a very good day you could get from Birmingham to London in 90 minutes and from Manchester in two-and-a-half hours, but the service was infrequent and unreliable. Longer-distance trains, from North Wales or Glasgow, seemed to take all day. Yes. Despite widespread public hostility to rail privatisation, John Major's government pressed ahead with selling off the nation's railway infrastructure, rolling stock and the rights to run trains. Most of the franchises were awarded to existing surface transport companies. But a music and airline entrepreneur, Richard Branson was initially awarded two franchises, both starting in 1997: Virgin Trains CrossCountry as well as West Coast. What happened to CrossCountry? This franchise, connecting the South Coast with the Midlands, northern England and Scotland, was the Cinderella of the railways, with a lousy timetable and terrible trains. For the first time ever, the terms "CrossCountry" and "new rolling stock" were used in the same sentence, and a proper "clock-face" timetable was established. But while services were dramatically improved, some of the plans for new links proved overambitious; they foundered because the infrastructure simply wasn't up to scratch. In 2007 the Department for Transport (DfT) handed the franchise to Arriva. Meanwhile on the West Coast main line? Initially it was the same old trains with a splash of red paint. The very first launch locomotive was called "Mission Impossible", and early on it seemed the most appropriate name. Virgin Trains delivered the promised new tilting train, the Pendolino. It is designed to travel at 140mph, but this has never happened due to the botched upgrade of the West Coast main line – which left the speed restricted to 125mph. The service today, though, offers faster and more comfortable trains every 20 minutes from Manchester and Birmingham, and attracts three times more passengers as it did at the beginning of the franchise. So why did Virgin Trains lose the franchise? The franchise periodically comes up for renewal. Virgin had to resort to legal action in 2012 to retain the West Coast franchise after it was awarded by the Department for Transport to FirstGroup. Sir Richard Branson's company showed that the DfT's analysis was flawed, and retained the franchise. But FirstGroup have finally got their hands on the West Coast. Virgin had bid to continue to run trains on the line with its partner Stagecoach and – ahead of High Speed 2 (HS2) – SNCF. But the consortium refused to take what it saw as open-ended responsibility for part of the massive pensions deficit across the rail industry. Virgin Trains was happy to pay contributions for its current workforce, but to do more was a risk too far in these uncertain times. The Department for Transport said the incumbent had "submitted non-compliant bids … and, in doing so, they are responsible for their own disqualification." Virgin said: "We're extremely disappointed by this news." Sir Richard Branson tweeted: "A huge thank you to all our wonderful people at VirginTrains – it's down to all of your incredible work every day that Virgin Trains has been the UK's longest running and top-rated rail franchise." And David Horne, managing director of the East Coast train operator, LNER, wrote: "I had the privilege of being part of the Virgin Trains team back in 2003-4. What a journey!" Who or what is the new company? A brand called "Avanti," which is is Italian for "Forward" or "Let's go!". The name was chosen by the new franchise holder, a consortium involving FirstGroup, the long-established transport conglomerate based in Aberdeen, and the Italian state railway operator, Trenitalia, based in Rome. The trains remain the same, but they have already been stripped of Virgin branding and will be repainted green and white, with the Avanti logo – an orange triangle, symbolising (says the company) "the three geographic points of the 400-mile long West Coast main line". Which is odd, because the network has dozens of geographic points in the West Midlands, northwest England, North Wales and and southern Scotland, with much more than 400 miles of line. What will passengers notice with Avanti? The company says: "We're on a mission to take the services you know and love and make them even better. That means increased comfort, better facilities and more capacity." But in the short term, as the early French train fan Jean-Baptiste Carr said, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"—"the more things change, the more they stay the same." As passengers on the 8.05am departures (from both Manchester and Wolverhampton) on 8 December found, they are paying the same fares for trains run to the same timetable by the same staff. But there must be some changes further down the track? The existing Pendolino trains will be refurbished with new seats and – Avanti promises – more reliable Wi-Fi. Voyager trains, the noisy diesels, will be replaced by 2022, and Avanti says there will be 263 more train services every week, including doubling the frequency between Liverpool and London, and running direct trains for the first time this century from Llandudno and Walsall to the capital. The contract lasts until 2031, and Avanti was originally intended to cover the first five years of HS2 as well, but the high speed link will not now be ready by 2026 – and could be scrapped altogether. I have an Advance ticket which I bought from Virgin Trains. Will it be valid on the new operator? Yes. Indeed, you could buy tickets up to midnight on Saturday with Virgin Trains and they will continue to be accepted for another 24 weeks – or until the expiry date shown on the ticket.