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By Michael Northcott Thursday, 06 December 2012

Virgin on track for two more years on West Coast Mainline

Earlier this month, FirstGroup's attempt to get its hands on the West Coast Mainline was de-railed, at least for the next couple of years.

The government announced that Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains will be left to run the West Coast Mainline for two more years following the collapse of attempts at another franchise deal with FirstGroup.

The announcement comes just a few hours before an official report is published on why the original deal collapsed in the first place, and means that Old Beardie’s trains will rule the roost until 9 November 2014.

Department of Transport officials have said that the ‘temporary’ contract could be shortened by up to six months ‘if a subsequent franchise can be let on a shorter timescale’. However, the extension will give Branson’s lot plenty of time to up their game on the service: he will no doubt be keen to make sure the FirstGroup does not get a look-in by the time the tender process comes around again.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: ‘We are determined to ensure not only that passengers continue to experience the same levels of service they have in the past, but that services improve.’ That’s the point of putting it out to tender though, isn’t it?

Anyway, for the uninitiated, here’s what happened with the original deal. The Virgin Trains contract on the West Coast Mainline was due to expire, and both Virgin and FirstGroup put in bids to have control of the line when the tender was renewed.

The £5bn deal was formally awarded to FirstGroup, but Branson kicked up a huge fuss, which turned into a very public argument between himself and First’s chief exec, Tim O’Toole. 

But it took the prospect of a judicial review to force the Department for Transport to check its figures, and the next thing we knew, the DfT had revoked the contract and was launching an inquiry into some ‘failings’ in the tender process. Will the inquiry throw up any surprises? We’ll be sure to keep you posted…

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