Having been booted out of the competition for the new West Coast Partnership rail franchise over a non-compliant bid in relation to pension provision, Virgin is bouncing back with an ambitious Open Access operation on the route.
Virgin Trains has applied to the rail regulator to run what it is describing as the UK’s most advanced, and customer-focussed, train service.
If granted services would start in May 2021 providing a basic hourly service between Liverpool and London.
Virgin Trains says the new services would be unique in the UK rail industry. Every ticket would be guaranteed to be at least 10% cheaper than equivalent tickets offered by rail competitors, whioch means that it would undercut the franchised operator on the route.
However, Virgin Trains is not offering a walk-up provision. It is planning an airline-style service where each ticket would also come with a seat reservation for a particular service, meaning everyone would be guaranteed a seat.
The company says that the Virgin Trains service would be the only rail service in the UK to guarantee no overcrowding in normal operations. If there was disruption on the rail network and services were busier than normal, any passengers who couldn’t get a seat would get a full refund of their ticket.
Customers would also benefit from free Wi-Fi on all services, as well as free films and TV on board and an ‘at-seat’, on-demand catering service. And if trains were delayed, every passenger would get automatic ‘delay repay’ compensation without having to lodge a claim.
Phil Whittingham, Virgin Trains MD, said, “Virgin Trains has led the UK rail industry for twenty-two years. We’ve delivered faster and more frequent services, pioneered digital ticketing and shaken up the industry with initiatives such as scrapping the Friday evening peak. That’s why we top the independent customer satisfaction charts for long-distance franchises.
“But we want to go further. These new services will allow us to take the customer experience on the UK’s railways to the next level and show the rest of the industry how it can be done.”
The application to the rail regulator bids for 24 services per day between London Euston and Liverpool Lime Street. It is expected these services would also call at Lichfield, Tamworth, Nuneaton and Liverpool South Parkway.
This initiative is separate to Virgin Trains’ current West Coast operation. It is expected the new services will generate around £50m of revenue each year. The Open Access bid is being made by a partnership comprising Virgin, Stagecoach, SNCF and Alstom. Virgin has not disclosed the level of shareholding of the partners or indeed what rolling stock it would use to operate the service. However, there could be surplus Mk4/Class 91 trainsets available. There are currently being displaced from East Coast Main Line operations as the new Azuma trains enter service.
The announcement is hot on the heels of news that by the end of December, Virgin Trains will release an app which promises savings for rail passengers of around £1bn a year. The app will offer an Oyster-style fares cap which will work out the cheapest fare for a journey retrospectively, ensuring customers have the cheapest fare combination available. The app will also deliver a seamless split-ticketing function, automatically calculating if a cheaper combination of fares for one journey is available, without having to change train or purchase multiple paper tickets.
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.