Virgin train 'bombshell' cannot affect future of Blackpool to London rail service say campaigners

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The bombshell news that Virgin and Stagecoach have been disqualified from the bid to run inter city trains on the West Coast Main Line must not be allowed to threaten Blackpool’s direct rail link to the capital, say community leaders.

Virgin, which supported the Gazette’s hard fought campaign to get direct train services reinstated between the resort and London, and its partner Stagecoach, were dumped out of the competition to carry on with its Pendolino trains on the North West’s vital rail link by the Department for Transport over the offer they made to cover staff pensions.

They may yet appeal against the DfT’s decision and the two other groups bidding to operate the services along with HS2 trains to the North West may agree to maintain the eight services a weekday and six on Saturdays, but there are concerns over how this will affect quality of service.

Blackpool-based rail sector champion for disabled travellers, Stephen Brookes, said the news was a “total bombshell”.

He said: “I am deeply disappointed by this decision the excellent customer service that we have seen from Virgin Trains may now change under a new franchise.

“It is to be hoped that common sense prevails here. But at the moment we have to be concerned about what the future is for the West Coast Main Line.

“Virgin has always, from when it re-introduced direct services from Blackpool to the capital four years ago, had a good relationship with this part of the world and the staff relations with customers is excellent, so this announcement has to be a concern for Blackpool.

“If this is indeed about funding then the worry is that quality of customer service in future will suffer. We do not need a pared down national railway service.”

Blackpool North’s Conservative MP and former rail minister, Paul Maynard said he would fight to make sure Blackpool got the best service whoever won the bid.

He said: “There remains a franchise competition, though without Stagecoach’s participation due to the company falling short of requirements on pension obligations.

“I will monitor the situation and engage with bidders to ensure the best possible service for Blackpool North and for my constituents”.

Paul Nettleton from the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Rail Users Association said Virgin’s customer service was excellent but felt that whoever takes over would keep the Pendolinos coming to Blackpool.

He said: “It is likely that they will just rebrand them. Virgin brought in an extra early morning service but simply moved the other direct trains we have now from Lancaster to Blackpool.

“I can’t imagine the new operators would be allowed to reduce the services. In any case in December we will have the GNWR Alliance Rail) electric services between Blackpool and London under the open access programme which will run five trains a day.”

Virgin has run its Pendolino trains on the tracks through Lancashire since March 1997 said it was shocked by the decision which the Department for Transport says is linked to problems with covering staff pensions under the company’s current bid.

Virgin is partnered with Stagecoach and the French state-owned rail group SNCF in the application to continue running inter city trains on the line and the new HS2 services should that track be built. The DfT said that Stagecoach’s bid for the West Coast Main Line and two other routes, the East Midlands line and the South Eastern line, failed to comply with the rules, particularly as regards to pensions.

Bidders for the franchises were asked to bear the full long-term funding risk on relevant sections of the Railways Pension Scheme, Stagecoach said.

It added that the Pensions Regulator is seeking additional funding because of “serious doubts” over the Government’s ongoing support for the industry-wide scheme. Stagecoach chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “We are extremely concerned at both the DfT’s decision and its timing. The Department has had full knowledge of these bids for a lengthy period and we are seeking an urgent meeting to discuss our significant concerns.

“The Pensions Regulator has indicated that an additional £5bn to £6bn would be needed to plug the gap in train company pensions.”

The rail industry proposed solution would have delivered an additional £500m to £600m into the scheme. This, Mr Griffiths said, would have provided “better stability and security for members” and better value for taxpayers.

“We are shocked that the Government has rejected this for a higher-risk approach. We would urge that a full independent value-for-money review is undertaken into this issue without delay.”

A Virgin Trains spokesman said: “We’re very disappointed by the DfT’s unexpected decision. We’ve led the industry for more than twenty years with our ground-breaking innovations, such as automatic delay repay, and award-winning customer service.

“We’re studying the DfT’s decision carefully to understand why they’ve taken this action and would like to reassure all our customers that they can still book and travel as normal.”

The company said it had improved services for passengers from introducing tilting Pendolino trains, to a pioneering automated delay repay scheme, introducing onboard entertainment streaming services, and becoming the first franchised rail operator to offer m-Tickets for all ticket types.

A DfT spokesman said: “Stagecoach is an experienced bidder and fully aware of the rules of franchise competitions. It is regrettable that they submitted non-compliant bids for all current competitions which breached established rules and, in doing so, they are responsible for their own disqualification.

“Stagecoach chose to propose significant changes to the commercial terms for the East Midlands, West Coast Partnership and South Eastern contracts, leading to bids which proposed a significantly different deal to the ones on offer.

“We have total confidence in our process. We have awarded the East Midlands franchise to Abellio after they presented a strong, compliant bid.

“Stagecoach have played an important role in our railways and we hope they will continue to do so post the conclusions of the Rail Review. However, it is entirely for Stagecoach and their bidding partners to explain why they decided to repeatedly ignore established rules by rejecting the commercial terms on offer.”

The battle is now between First Trenitalia West Coast, a joint venture between First Rail Holdings Ltd and Italian high speed trains specialist Trenitalia, and MTR West Coast Partnership, made up of MTR Corporation (UK) and Guangshen Railway.

New services due for resort

Paul Nettleton from the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Rail Users Association said Virgin’s customer service was excellent but felt that whoever takes over would keep the Pendolinos coming to Blackpool.

He said: “It is likely that they will just rebrand them.

“Virgin have been excellent with their customer service, better than the likes of Northern for example, and they brought in an extra early morning service but with the other direct services they simply moved the other direct trains we have now from Lancaster to Blackpool.

“In any case, I can’t imagine the new operators would be allowed to reduce the services. Whatever happens with this franchise, in December we will have the new GNWR (Alliance Rail) electric services between Blackpool and London under the open access programme which will run five trains a day.

“I have in the past travelled on Trenitalia trains in Italy and they were pretty good. I think whoever comes in has to be given the chance.”

MP says...

Blackpool South Labour MP Gordon Marsden said the issue must not be allowed to affect Blackpool’s hard won direct train services to London.

He said he would be asking questions about the franchise process to find out what was going on and said the news was very concerning to train users and employees.

He said: “It is vitally important that we keep our strong link to the capital.

“This undignified spat between a private company and the Government over who should pick up the bill for reasonable pensions for rail employees is obviously very concerning and, in particular, for both users and residents of Blackpool, but also the visitors that we have in their millions each year.

“Maintaining a good high quality service both in terms of the route between London Euston and Preston and the direct route to Blackpool is vital.

“However, this episode, and I shall be making further enquires with the DfT as to what conversations there were with Virgin, simply illustrates the broken nature of our national railways and why public opinion shows growing support for public ownership.”

How resort fought for capital connection

In 2013 the Blackpool Gazette launched a campaign, On Track to the Capital, to bring back the direct services to London that had been dumped 11 years earlier.

That year, Network Rail knocked back Virgin’s bid to reinstate two trains a day and high profile figures in the resort lined up to demand it change its mind. Everyone from Blackpool FC legend Jimmy Armfield, a regular commuter to London at the time for his broadcasting commitments, to West End star Jodie Prenger, MPs Councillors and business leaders joined 5,000 Gazette readers with a petition which was delivered to the Office of Rail Regulation demanding the service. The ORR backed the bid and in June 2014 Virgin got the go-ahead for a 5.27am service from Blackpool North arriving at Euston at 8.34am, with the return departing at 4.33pm.