Today (19 June 2014) I have announced the successful conclusion of negotiations for a new directly awarded franchise agreement with West Coast Trains Limited (Virgin). This deal will see Virgin continue to run passenger rail services on the InterCity West Coast franchise for a period of 2 years and 9 months until the start of the services on the next competed franchise, which is expected in April 2017. The additional benefits secured in this direct award are so great that I have also agreed to terminate the current franchise early so that services can begin on the new terms on 22 June this year.
The new franchise will see significant improvements for passengers during the term of the contract, with benefits totalling around £35 million. This will include more capacity with 5,500 extra standard class seats per day from a reconfiguration of first class seating; improvements to on board wi-fi and the introduction of free wi-fi at all of Virgin’s stations. The operator will also support the government’s commitment to get more people into work by creating jobs for young and unemployed people, including apprenticeship and traineeship schemes. Investments at stations will see improvements in the quality of waiting rooms, seats and shelters and more than 200 new automatic ticket gates will be installed across the franchise.
New passenger satisfaction, punctuality and cleanliness targets will be introduced on the franchise. These tough new targets will help make sure that Virgin continues to provide improving standards for its 30 million annual passengers. In addition the company will step up its engagement with Network Rail, communities and stakeholders so that all the users of the franchise can have a say in how it can continue to improve services. This includes working with Network Rail to try to improve journey times between London and Scotland, especially through supporting the remodelling of Carstairs Junction, a significant bottleneck on the network.
Virgin will also seek permission from the ORR to extend services from London to include some new services between the capital and Shrewsbury and, separately, Blackpool from December 2014. The franchise will also see an improved position for the taxpayer, with increased premiums due to be returned to government under this contract.
This agreement is a ringing endorsement of what the rail franchising programme can achieve; working in partnership with the rail industry to deliver better services for passengers and improved returns for government.