What you need to know as Avanti takes over West Coast main line from Virgin Trains

Simon Calder
All change: Avanti announces its arrival at London Euston: Simon Calder

The West Coast main line linking London Euston with the west midlands, northwest England, north Wales and Scotland is under new management.

After 22 years, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains company has been replaced on the line by a new operator called Avanti.

Why the change – and what will it mean for passengers?

It was the 20th century when Virgin Trains was first launched. What were the railways like at the time?

In the mid-1990s, the railways were fully nationalised but appeared to be in long-term decline, caused by the growth of car ownership and lack of investment in train travel.

While the East Coast main line between London King’s Cross, Yorkshire, Newcastle and Edinburgh had been electrified and provided with new trains, the West Coast route had some of the oldest rolling stock on the railways.

On a very good day you could get from Birmingham to London in 90 minutes and from Manchester in two-and-a-half hours, but the service was infrequent and unreliable. Longer-distance trains, from north Wales or Glasgow, seemed to take all day.

Then the whole lot was privatised?

Yes. Despite widespread public hostility to rail privatisation, John Major’s government pressed ahead with selling off the nation’s railway infrastructure, rolling stock and the rights to run trains.

Most of the franchises were awarded to existing surface transport companies. But music and airline entrepreneur Richard Branson was initially awarded two franchises, both starting in 1997: Virgin Trains CrossCountry as well as West Coast.

What happened to CrossCountry?

This franchise, connecting the South coast with the Midlands, northern England and Scotland, was the Cinderella of the railways, with a lousy timetable and terrible trains.

For the first time ever, the terms “CrossCountry” and “new rolling stock” were used in the same sentence, and a proper “clock-face” timetable was established. But while services were dramatically improved, some of the plans for new links proved overambitious; they foundered because the infrastructure simply wasn’t up to scratch.

In 2007 the Department for Transport (DfT) handed the franchise to Arriva.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast main line?

Initially it was the same old trains with a splash of red paint. The very first launch locomotive was called “Mission Impossible”, and early on it seemed the most appropriate name.

New arrival: Richard Branson at the launch of Virgin Trains in 1997 (Virgin Trains)

Virgin Trains delivered the promised new tilting train, the Pendolino. It is designed to travel at 140mph, but this has never happened due to the botched upgrade of the West Coast main line – which left the speed restricted to 125mph.

The service today, though, offers faster and more comfortable trains every 20 minutes from Manchester and Birmingham, and attracts three times more passengers than it did at the beginning of the franchise.

So why did Virgin Trains lose the franchise?

The franchise periodically comes up for renewal. Virgin had to resort to legal action in 2012 to retain the West Coast franchise after it was awarded by the Department for Transport to FirstGroup.

Sir Richard Branson’s company showed that the DfT’s analysis was flawed, and retained the franchise. But FirstGroup have finally got their hands on the West Coast.

Virgin had bid to continue to run trains on the line with its partner Stagecoach and – ahead of High Speed 2 (HS2) – SNCF.

But the consortium refused to take what it saw as open-ended responsibility for part of the massive pensions deficit across the rail industry. Virgin Trains was happy to pay contributions for its current workforce, but to do more was a risk too far in these uncertain times.

The Department for Transport said the incumbent had “submitted non-compliant bids ... and, in doing so, they are responsible for their own disqualification”.

Virgin said: “We’re extremely disappointed by this news.” Sir Richard Branson tweeted: “A huge thank you to all our wonderful people at VirginTrains – it’s down to all of your incredible work every day that Virgin Trains has been the UK’s longest running and top-rated rail franchise.”

And David Horne, managing director of the East Coast train operator, LNER, wrote: “I had the privilege of being part of the Virgin Trains team back in 2003-4.

“You overcame every setback, achieved the Red Revolution and screwed average. What a journey!”

End of the line: the first Virgin Pendolino (390001, left) was the last to arrive at London Euston on 7 December 2019 (Simon Calder)

Who or what is the new company?

A brand called “Avanti”, Italian for “forward” or “let’s go!”. The name was chosen by the new franchise holder, a consortium involving FirstGroup, the long-established transport conglomerate based in Aberdeen, and the Italian state railway operator, Trenitalia, based in Rome.

The trains remain the same, but they have already been stripped of Virgin branding and will be repainted green and white, with the Avanti logo – an orange triangle, symbolising (says the company) “the three geographic points of the 400-mile long West Coast main line”. Which is odd, because the network has dozens of geographic points in the west midlands, northwest England, north Wales and and southern Scotland, with much more than 400 miles of line.

What will passengers notice with Avanti?

The company says: “We’re on a mission to take the services you know and love and make them even better. That means increased comfort, better facilities and more capacity.” But in the short term, as the early French train fan Jean-Baptiste Karr said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

As passengers on the 8.05am departures (from both Manchester and Wolverhampton) on 8 December found, they are paying the same fares for trains run to the same timetable by the same staff.

But there must be some changes further down the track?

The existing Pendolino trains will be refurbished with new seats and – Avanti promises – more reliable wifi. Voyager trains, the noisy diesels, will be replaced by 2022, and Avanti says there will be 263 more train services every week, including doubling the frequency between Liverpool and London, and running direct trains for the first time this century from Llandudno and Walsall to the capital.

The contract lasts until 2031, and Avanti was originally intended to cover the first five years of HS2 as well, but the high-speed link will not now be ready by 2026 – and could be scrapped altogether.

I have an advance ticket that I bought from Virgin Trains. Will it be valid on the new operator?

Yes. Indeed, you could buy tickets up to midnight on Saturday with Virgin Trains and they will continue to be accepted for another 24 weeks – or until the expiry date shown on the ticket.

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On board the final ever Virgin Trains journey