The announcement was long awaited. It was like a episode of ‘Blind Date’ Just who were Virgin/Stagecoach wooing for their planned West Coast Partnership franchise bid?
Now we know, it’s the French Stage Railway SNCF.
Virgin and Stagecoach had no choice but to get a third partner on side. The Government has been insistent that the prospective bidders must have high speed experience and that was a box that Virgin or Stagecoach were unable to tick without an additional partner coming on board.
So Virgin Trains (Virgin/Stagecoach) will partner with the French high speed operator, SNCF, in its bid for the West Coast Partnership. This will see the expertise of Virgin, Stagecoach and SNCF brought together to compete for the combined West Coast / HS2 franchise.
The Government has announced that the West Coast Partnership franchise will run from 2019, that it will include the first few years of operation of HS2.
However, following the trend with the current East Coast franchise where Virgin has just a 10% holding to Stagecoach’s 90%, Virgin is again taking the smallest shareholding. It is unknown whether this is Virgin losing confidence in the rail market or merely restricting an future risk to the business. The shareholding for the West Coast Partnership bid is Stagecoach 50%, SNCF 30% and Virgin 20%.
Patrick McCall, Virgin Trains co-Chairman said: “I’m delighted that SNCF has come on board, and together we will put forward what we hope is the winning bid for the next West Coast, and first HS2, franchise. We’ve just celebrated twenty years of Virgin Trains and this news puts us in the best possible position to make it thirty. We’re thrilled about the prospect of continuing and improving this record of innovation with the UK’s first long distance high speed network, as well as with our friends and communities along the West Coast.”
SNCF is a global leader in high speed rail. It operates the largest fleet of high speed trains in Europe (nearly 430 trainsets) and, not including Thalys or Eurostar, runs around 700 high speed rail journeys per day in France and internationally at speeds of up to 320 km/h, the fastest in Europe. SNCF has been operating its iconic TGV service since 1981 and in 2013 launched Ouigo, its low-cost high speed service. SNCF’s high speed division recorded turnover of €7.5 billion in 2016 of which 27% was from international operations with 27 million passengers journeying on high speed trains outside of France.
Martin Griffiths, Chief Executive of Stagecoach Group, said: "This creates a powerful world-class partnership, bringing together the team which has transformed inter-city rail travel in the UK with the most recognised and capable high speed operator in Europe.
"The new franchise has an important role to play in delivering the improvements and space on our railway that can support our communities and economy. Together, we have a very strong track record of working effectively with other rail partners and infrastructure providers, as well as using cutting edge technology to achieve a step change in customer service."
Guillaume Pepy, Chairman and CEO of SNCF said: “This is a very exciting development for SNCF. We are world leaders in high speed rail. SNCF has a long-standing commitment of working in partnership with British companies, using their local knowledge and sharing our expertise and experience. Today, we are delighted to announce this next step in our commitment to UK rail, working with partners who have demonstrated their own expertise in long distance rail services and are highly regarded in the industry. We appreciate Stagecoach’s widespread expertise across a variety of transport modes and Virgin’s reputation for its renowned customer experience. In partnership, we will deliver a successful HS2 service for the UK.”
Virgin, Stagecoach, and SNCF have already worked together on the first stage of the West Coast Partnership bid, the ‘expression of interest’, which was submitted yesterday. The partners will now prepare for the “Invitation to Tender” which is expected to be issued by the end of the year.
lIt has to be said, when Virgin Trains does PR it does it extremely well.
The train operator has always had a ‘can do’ approach and can pull off the impossible. The PR team has a knack of making things happen and making other organisations want a slice of the action. It does help when the Managing Director is enthusiastic and supportive and willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
So who else could have pulled off the event that took place north of York on the morning of Sunday April 23rd?
I know that the whole rail industry pulled together to make this event happen but hey, the costs must have been substantial. But in my view the cost was irrelevant. This was an event that captured the imagination of not just rail enthusiasts but also the general public and the national media. What Virgin Trains East Coast achieved as creating a feelgood factor for not only its own business or its partner’s businesses. What it did was raise the profile of Railways UK. So well done to all involved.
So what was all the fuss about?
Enthusiasts and history buffs were treated to a world first as four generations of trains representing the past, present and future of passenger rail travel ran side by side, in the same direction on the East Coast main line.
The event took place in the stunning Yorkshire countryside and featured the famous Flying Scotsman alongside two trains from Virgin Trains’ revitalised fleet - an HST Intercity 125 (Class 43), an Intercity 225 (Class 91) - and as well as the first new Virgin Azuma (Class 800), which is being built by Hitachi in the North East, and will come into service in 2018. One of the iconic Deltic Class 55 locomotives also go in on the action!
The once in a lifetime event was organised by Virgin Trains, National Railway Museum, Network Rail, Welcome to Yorkshire and Hitachi to celebrate the start of a new chapter for one of the country’s most iconic railway lines.
The journey though the Yorkshire countryside was enjoyed by crowds of rail fans who took advantage of viewing points along the route to marvel at the unique spectacle, which concluded at York station.
David Horne, Managing Director for Virgin Trains on the east coast, said: “We’re delighted to have presented this unique event showcasing the past, present and future of express rail travel in the UK, with our first Azuma travelling alongside 'Flying Scotsman' and trains from our current fleet. With our new Azuma trains entering service next year, this has been an opportunity to celebrate the icons of the railways and look forward to 2018 when we’ll usher in a new era for travel on the East Coast route."
Paul Kirkman, Director for the National Railway Museum in York, which is custodian of the Flying Scotsman, said: "In what is genuinely a world first with our engines of the past, present and future coming together in this way, the National Railway Museum is delighted to have supported this unique celebration of our railway heritage, unlikely to be seen again in our lifetimes. It’s fitting to see the Flying Scotsman participate in something of this magnitude.”
Rob McIntosh, Managing Director for Network Rail on the London North Eastern and East Midlands route, said: “The East Coast Mainline and its long heritage is uniquely placed to have run these four historic trains from four different generations side by side. This was a long-standing vision for both myself and our industry partners and that vision has become a reality, creating a wonderful occasion to help us celebrate our proud rail heritage as well as the ongoing success of Britain’s railways. To have achieved this truly special, once in a generation event with the eyes of the world watching - and to have not caused any disruption to regular rail passengers - makes me immensely proud to have helped to make a moment in railway history.”
Karen Boswell, Managing Director for Hitachi Rail Europe, said: “We believe our new British built Azuma trains will inspire the next generation of rail enthusiasts and show how investment in new trains will transform passenger experiences on this iconic route.”
Sir Gary Verity, Chief Executive of Welcome to Yorkshire said; ‘What a moment in history; a once in a lifetime event on St George’s day and just days before the start of the Tour de Yorkshire. We’re immensely proud to have been involved in making this wonderful event a reality. It’s taken passion, drive and commitment, all true Yorkshire qualities that help make our county as great as it is.”
Go Ahead South Coast is to sweep away the traditional-looking Thamesdown livery with a new look. The livery and branding from the Ray Stenning and the Best Impressions design studio will be introduced in the coming months.
The new branding gives a greater prominence to Swindon, where Thamesdown are based.
The first vehicles to carry the new livery are expected to be a batch of classic design ADL Enviro 200s which are due to be delivered next month. They will be followed in September/October by 13 ADL Enviro 200MMCs.
We are now able to confirm the additional Enviro200 (likely to be 8) due in May will be of the classic design. The 13 due in September/October will be Enviro200MMC.
The Enviro 200s due next month are for Thamesdown’s service revision being launched on 14th May in reaction to the recently introduced Stagecoach competitive services. As well as increasing some frequencies and re-routing some services, there are two brand new services. Service 5 (Haydon Wick-Town Centre-Park North) will compete with Stagecoach’s new Service 3, which covers some of Thamesdown’s busiest routes. New Thamesdown Service R1 (Swindon to Royal Wootton Bassett will operate out of Swindon into pure Stagecoach territory along their busy Service 55 (Swindon-Royal Wootton Bassett-Chippenham). Stagecoach have already reacted by registering an increased frequency on Service 55 from 28th May. Stagecoach has cascaded a large number of Dart SLFs from other regional companies into its Swindon depot to cover the increased vehicle requirement.
Earlier this year we had a Government Minister saying that drivers should “think long and hard” before buying a diesel car and instead consider purchasing a low-emission vehicle.
The comment came as it emerged that the Government was working on a strategy to tackle air pollution.
Transport Minister Chris Grayling’s comments took place as it emerged that the government had a legal duty to cut emissions of nitrogen oxide from diesel cars, which account for four in ten vehicles on British roads, after a high court ruling last year ordered action within a short timescale.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Chris Grayling said: “People should take a long, hard think about what they need, about where they’re going to be driving and should make best endeavours to buy the least polluting vehicle they can.
“I don’t think diesel is going to disappear but someone who is buying a car to drive around a busy city may think about buying a low-emission vehicle rather than a diesel.”
Now a Freedom of Information request by Steven Knight Media has revealed that despite Chris Grayling’s comments on diesel vehicles around two-thirds of Government cars, which include those used by the Department for Transport, are diesel powered, although no information was made available on what type of car Chris Grayling uses.
The Government says:
“Since April 2012, the Government Car Service (GCS) has provided a Departmental Pool Car service where a car is contracted to a Department rather than allocated to an individual Minister. A Departmental Pool Car is a shared resource, available for Ministers and senior officials to use as directed by each customer Government Department.
“The GCS currently has 91 cars available for ministerial use as Departmental Pool Cars. Of these, six are pure electric, 21 have hybrid technology, five are petrol and 59 are diesel.
“As vehicles become due for renewal, they will be replaced by non-diesel alternatives. five diesel vehicles are due for disposal shortly”.
Stagecoach has announced that it is scrapping its Megabus Gold overnight sleeper service between London and Scotland.
The last services will operate on 21st May 2017.
Stagecoach started Megabus sleeper services in 2011 using articulated Jonckheere Mistral coaches. In 2013 a fleet of Van Hool Astromegas entered service and the service was rebranded MegabusGold.
Stagecoach said: “The services - which launched in 2013 - represented an innovative and new travel product and have helped provide a value-for-money long-distance transport option over the past four years.
“While the services have proved popular with a loyal core base of customers, unfortunately the overall level of demand has been below the level required for us to be able to continue the routes.
"The long-distance travel market is extremely competitive, and we have faced strong competition from low-cost airlines, rail services and the private car benefitting from low fuel prices".
There is no indication yet on what will happen to the 13 sleeper vehicles in the fleet, although three of them have been in the driver training fleet at Cwmbran, Rugby and Cumbernauld for some time and not used in service.
One of the country’s leading long-distance rail operators has said that it is keen to see the death of the paper rail ticket. The company says that 24% of passengers now use mobile ticketing with a big take up also on print at home tickets.
However, it is likely to be many years before the end of paper tickets for rail travel.
Virgin Trains on the West Coast has said that its recent 20th Birthday Seat Sale was the most successful it has ever run. The company says that traffic to its website when the offer was launched was seven times more than that on a normal Thursday morning.
Steven Knight Media has learned that the issue of First Class accommodation on trains is one that is even being considered by long distance train operators. Perhaps a solution would be to retain full First Class accommodation at Peak times and then use some, or all, of the accommodation for Standard ticket holders at off peak times.
The thought brings memories of the Virgin Trains initiative on West Coast back in 1997. For a premium on the Standard ticket fare passengers could use the First Class coach next to the Buffet Car. This was p[art of the Zone system for which coloured indications appeared on station platforms.
The enhanced Standard product was in the Blue Zone, but did not include the complimentary food although passengers in the Blue Zone coach could see and smell the food as it was carried through the coach to the First Class accommodation.
The Pendolino trains used by Virgin Trains on the West Coast route will lose their silver livery with red roof when repaints get underway later this year.
The trains will be repainted as part of a contractual arrangements which states that a repaint will take place after 15 years (are they really that old? I remember launching them during my time in Virgin Trains PR!).
The repaint work, which will take place at Alstom’s facility at Widnes is being funded by Alstom and the Department for Transport. The first set is due to be repainted in June and will emerge in grey with the roof painted black. The only Virgin branding will be on the driving cars.
390006 is planned to be the first set to be repainted and is scheduled to go into paint on June 26th 2017. The schedule for the remainder of 2017 is 390010 (07/08/2017), 390011 (11/09/2017), 390013 (09/10/2017), 390016 (30/10/2017), 390020 (13/11/2017), 390009 (27/11/2017) and 390005 (11/12/2017).
The remainder of the fleet is being programmed at one every two weeks through 2018 and into 2019 with 390153 planned to be the last of the original sets to be painted in October 2019. The four additional sets 390154-57 will then follow.
The trains will have all decals and nameplates removed before repaint and it is unknown whether the nameplates will be replaced. It is also expected that the cast Virgin crests will be removed from the nose cones of the Pendolinos prior to repaint. A detailed vynil crest has already appeared on a Class 221 SuperVoyager train and we understand that there is an option to use this version of the crest on the repainted Pendolinos.
Steven Knight is a Transport Specialist who has over 40 years experience in the bus and rail industries as well as in specialist transport journalism. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.