By Emma Antrobus, Member Policy and Campaigns Manager at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce
It is great news to hear that Virgin has signed off a new directly awarded franchise agreement to run services on the West Coast Mainline until April 2017.
You may remember the fiasco that surrounded the re-letting of the franchise in September 2013 which resulted in a legal challenge to the process by Virgin and an embarrassing climb-down from the Government. During that time we received an unprecedented number of calls and emails from businesses saying that they didn’t want Virgin to lose the franchise as they offered great service.
As well as the huge cost to the taxpayer, the mostly unseen outcome from the franchise delay was that the company was poised to refurbish all the trains under the new franchise agreement and had to lay people off as the all plans were put on hold.
This new franchise agreement will see significant improvements for passengers with improvements to Wi-Fi on board and free Wi-Fi at all Virgin managed stations. There will also be investment in waiting rooms, seats and shelters, and the introduction of new automatic ticket gates across the franchise.
The big change will be that there will be a reconfiguration of first class seating, creating an extra 5,500 standard class seats EACH DAY. This has been one of elements that the anti-HS2 campaigners have been suggesting as the silver bullet to solve the capacity difficulties. Whilst it may impact on capacity in the short term it will not provide extra services to destinations with no current direct link to London, and will do nothing to increase freight on rail.
Other improvements are likely to come on stream, with possibilities of services to Blackpool and Shrewsbury, and there will be an increased premium paid by Virgin – so an improved position for all taxpayers regardless of whether they travel by train or not.
As a Chamber, we will continue to work with Virgin to help improve the experiences that businesses have using their services and would welcome any comments you may have.