Virgin Trains plans West Coast return

Virgin Trains

Virgin Trains has applied for a licence to run rail services on the West Coast, five years after losing out to the hugely unpopular successor Avanti West Coast.

Virgin Group confirmed over the weekend that it had applied to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) for an Open Access licence.

Since taking over the franchise, Avanti has faced fierce criticism over delays and cancellations.

Under the type of licence Virgin is applying for, the operator receives no subsidy and runs services alongside a franchised operator, such as Avanti, at its own risk.

Virgin Trains had operated the service, which runs from London Euston via Birmingham and Manchester to Scotland, for 22 years before it was disqualified from bidding for the franchise.

A spokesperson for Virgin Group said: “While this application is just the first step towards exploring what might be possible, we think Open Access is the way forward.

“Open Access increases consumer choice and competition both of which Virgin has always supported.”

In March the ORR gave the go-ahead for Grand Union Trains, an open access operator, to start a new train service from 2025 between London and the city of Stirling, which will also call at Milton Keynes Central, Nuneaton, Crewe, Preston and Carlisle.

The new services will be the first run by an open access operator on the West Coast Mainline. Open access operators run services independently of government funding as they do not have a franchise agreement with government.

Stephanie Tobyn, Director, Strategy, Policy and & Reform, said at the time: “Our decision helps increase services for passengers and boost competition on Britain’s railway network. By providing more trains serving new destinations, open access operators offer passengers more choice in the origin and price of their journey leading to better outcomes for rail users.”

The board of Transport for the North wrote to the Government demanding it strips train company Avanti of its West Coast Main Line franchise “at the earliest opportunity”.

It came after a report to the board that stated, “a continuation of the current situation is unacceptable to the North.”

Greater Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham told Steve Montgomery, managing director at First Rail, which owns Avanti: “Your company has inflicted huge damage on our economy for coming up to two years now since the timetable collapsed in 2022.”

In a major policy review in March, the Labour party said they will continue to use the Open Access system as part of their overhaul of the railways.