East side, west side: Virgin's sacking off first class on the West Coast main line

Virgin Trains has finally got its paws back on the West Coast main line. One of the provisos of the deal is that it massively scales back first class.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 24 Sep 2014

Remember the hullabaloo around the West Coast main line, which runs from London to Scotland? In a nutshell, it was this: in 2012 First Group was awarded the contract to run it, Virgin Trains took exception, and the government realised its decision process had been ‘completely unacceptable’ before deciding to run the line itself while it tried to work out what exactly had happened.

But – caloo, calay – the government has made its decision, and it’s come down on the side of Virgin. The train operator will take over the services of the line, which carries 30 million passengers a year, later this month (albeit only until 2017, when the original contract would have run out).

How did Virgin clinch the £430m contract (apart from doing its ‘injured puppy’ face at the government)? Under its plans, customers will get free wifi at stations, it’ll convert 21 first class carriages to standard (creating 5,500 extra seats), and it’ll spend £20m on modernising stations). It’ll also spend £2.5m on upgrading the interior of its trains (MT can but hope that means the end of the hated semi-circular automatic doors in its loos) and £2.75m on improving its catering service.

That’s not all: Virgin also says that from December, it’ll start running trains between Blackpool and Shrewsbury, and London. Which, given better links between those towns and London are one of the main arguments behind HS2, makes proposals for the high speed line even less relevant.

The government seems pleased with itself: it reckons the contract will create £35m of ‘passenger benefits’ – although how you measure the cost benefit of a few apprenticeships and some free wifi is difficult to say…

The government will, presumably, be keeping a close eye on how Virgin copes with passenger numbers. Another justification behind HS2 is that the West Coast main line is full to bursting. But with the extra standard class seats and fancy new train interiors, it may be that the line can cope just fine, which will make HS2’s case look even more shaky.

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