Rail chiefs, tourism bosses and business leaders across the Fylde coast today united in disappointment after plans to restore a direct train link between the resort and London were thrown out, branding the decision “appalling.”
And Virgin Trains has refused to accept there is not enough room on the line, pledging to go back to the drawing board on the plans.
The Office of Rail Regulation yesterday rejected Virgin Trains’ appeal against the decision of rail network operators Network Rail not to allow two return services per day to run to the capital.
Virgin first tabled the plans, which would see journeys between Blackpool and London slashed to three hours, in March. But in May (check) Network Rail rejected the plans, saying there was not enough capacity on the West Coast Main Line for the extra services.
Virgin appealed that decision to the ORR immediately and, backed by more than 5,000 readers who signed up to The Gazette’s On Track To The Capital campaign in just two weeks, hoped to have the decision overturned.
But the ORR upheld it, criticising “consistently poor” performance and punctuality on the existing line and saying it therefore had “serious concerns” about the impact more services would have.
The ORR said there was “not currently sufficient space on the line to run all of the additional services,” adding: “The proposals would have also caused further deterioration in punctuality by adding traffic to what is already a very busy route, on which Network Rail is currently not meeting the punctuality targets it has been funded to deliver.”
In a detailed report on its decision, the regulator said performance on the line had been “persistently disappointing” ever since a new timetable was introduced in December 2008, adding that “poor infrastructure reliability and external events” were largely to blame “rather than matters that are the responsibility of Virgin.”
It added a performance investigation looking at whether Network Rail had done everything reasonably practicable to achieve its regulated outputs for performance” had recently been carried out.
But despite the ORR’s concerns, bosses at Virgin Trains insist this is far from the end for the bid to see the line restored.
And the ORR has offered a glimmer of hope, saying efforts will be made to ensure plans for the route can be looked at again “as soon as possible”.
A spokesman for Virgin said: “We are very disappointed, we believe the case was strong. We have got to deal with the issues of capacity and it is not good enough to say that it is difficult. We have got 13 years until High Speed 2 at least and in the meantime we need to work on ways of expanding the existing network.
“Are we really saying there is no more room for services in 2013? We don’t accept that at Virgin. We think there are ways around it and we will take this up again. We will pursue this to try and get a different decision.
“We will look at it very carefully and look at why they have come to this decision.
“We have to look at what needs to change and if that means different times of services perhaps or maybe having more discussions with Network Rail as to how we do this as a partnership, we will do that.
“The feeling from people in Blackpool was absolutely clear. To all the readers of The Gazette who voiced their opinions, we value that support and we pledge to carry on fighting.”
The ORR did appear to offer a lifeline to Virgin’s position last night. Chief executive Richard Price said: “Although we are unable to grant access right now, we are putting pressure on Network Rail both to improve its performance and to carry out improvements on the West Coast Main Line so that the question of new services from London to Blackpool can be looked at again as soon as possible.”
But the decision has been slammed by campaigners across the Fylde.
Coun Simon Blackburn, Leader of Blackpool Council, said: “I am appalled to hear of the decision of the Office of Rail Regulation.
“It is extremely disappointing the Government has not been able to have an impact on this decision and I would call on them to look again at the matter.
“We’ve been campaigning for this for a long time and I commend The Gazette and other local politicians for presenting a united front and supporting us.”
Hotelier Pat Stoker runs the Mar-ray Guest House on Springfield Road, North Shore, round the corner from Blackpool North station.
She said: “It’s disgusting because at the end of the day to have a direct rail link to the capital can only be a good thing. We’re trying to promote Blackpool and keep it going then they do something like this.” Gordon Marsden, MP for Blackpool South, says he will press secretary of state for transport, Patrick McLoughlin, for a meeting on the issue as soon as Parliament resumes in September.
He said: “We must not simply take this as the final decision, we should continue to press for an early review.”
Fylde MP Mark Menzies said: “I am extremely disappointed by the decision. I will now be seeking clarification from the office as to what this means going forward and will be speaking with fellow Fylde coast MPs to work with Virgin as it considers its next steps.
Eric Ollerenshaw, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, said: “I’m disappointed, particularly because when I had a meeting with Network Rail they suggested there was a possibility of getting this when changes were made to the West Coast Main Line.
“I’m not sure this is the end.” A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: ““While we are clear that HS2 is absolutely essential to address capacity issues in the longer term, there is still a need to provide additional services now. Therefore we are disappointed by the ORR’s decision to reject Virgin’s proposals.
“We hope that the situation can be resolved as soon as possible.”