Sir Richard Branson furious at 'insane' choice for West Coast line

Virgin has lost control of its flagship line. But will rival FirstGroup be able to do any better?

The new age of the train is due to begin on Platform 3 of Wolverhampton station at 8.05am on Sunday 9 December. At that moment, a First West Coast service will set off for London Euston for the first time on Britain's flagship rail route. At the same time a second train will depart from Manchester Piccadilly. The journeys will mark the end of the 15-year rail revolution launched by Sir Richard Branson.

Yesterday the rail minister, Theresa Villiers, appointed First West Coast as the new operator from London Euston to the West Midlands, the North West and Scotland. The firm will take over from Virgin at the annual timetable changeover in December. The franchise runs for at least 13 years.

Ms Villiers promised "big improvements" for passengers. Within three years new rolling stock will boost capacity, and the network will be extended beyond its core routes joining London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Trains from Blackpool will run from next year, with direct services from more towns to follow.

But Sir Richard reacted furiously to losing the right to run the West Coast main line. The music-business mogul turned transport magnate described the DfT's decision to award the first long-term franchise to FirstGroup as "insanity", and threatened to quit the rail industry.

Virgin, which is part-owned by the Stagecoach Group, has run the service since 1997. It faced competition from three transport giants for the new franchise: SNCF of France, Dutch Railways and FirstGroup. The foreign contenders were ruled out earlier, leaving Virgin and First battling over how much they would return to the Treasury over the course of the franchise.

FirstGroup bid £5.5bn, more than doubling Virgin's existing payments. It represents an average payment of more than £1m a day, or £13 per second, between now and 2026.

Yet the new operator has pledged to reduce the most expensive "walk-up" fares for standard class by 15 per cent within two years, cutting £22 from the £148 London-Manchester fare and trimming the Birmingham-Edinburgh price from £116 to £99.

FirstGroup's chief executive, Tim O'Toole, said the ambitious targets for passenger numbers and revenue were realistic: "We have created growth at these levels." The company believes it can earn more from available seats on off-peak trains than Virgin currently achieves, and claimed its plans would encourage travellers to switch from cars and planes, benefiting the environment.

FirstGroup's share price fell by 6 per cent during the day.

The Rail Minister said: "We believe that the bid is deliverable and robust." It is thought that if FirstGroup were to walk away from the deal at any stage, the firm would also lose its existing franchises, which include ScotRail and First Capital Connect commuter services in London.

Sir Richard Branson described the Coalition's decision as "extremely disappointing". He said: "To have bid more would have involved dramatic cuts to customer quality and considerable fare rises, which we were unwilling to entertain".

His company bid unsuccessfully for the East Coast franchise when GNER, and later National Express, were successful. Both operators handed back the keys part way through their franchise, and the line from London King's Cross to Edinburgh is currently operated by a government company, East Coast Trains. "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," said Sir Richard.

Since Virgin Trains won the West Coast franchise, passenger numbers on the line have overtaken those on the East Coast – more than doubling to 30 million annually. But the Virgin founder said it was unlikely he would bid for any more franchises: "We have made realistic offers for the East Coast twice before which were rejected by the Department for Transport for completely unrealistic ones and therefore we will have to think hard before embarking on another bid".

What you'll notice... and what you won't

Travellers on the 8.05 from Wolverhampton on 9 December will see little immediate difference to their usual train service, as the same staff and rolling stock will be employed. But FirstGroup promises rapid improvements, with an initial £350m investment over five years. Existing Pendolino and Voyager trains will be refurbished, with new seats and more luggage space. Some journeys will be accelerated, with the London-Glasgow time cut by 15 minutes, potentially breaking the four-hour barrier.

The new operator has also pledged to introduce 11 new six-car electric trains, adding 12,000 seats a day to existing capacity plans. Passengers travelling to and from Preston, Nuneaton and Milton Keynes will get more trains, while Telford, Shrewsbury and Bolton will be reconnected with Euston by 2016. Stations will benefit from a £22m improvement programme.

Smart-card technology, similar to Oyster cards on the London network, will be deployed to reduce the need for paper tickets. On board, travellers should notice enhanced on-train catering and "a greater emphasis on customer-facing staff". FirstGroup has also promised free, high-speed Wi-Fi.

Branson's reaction: When will the Department for Transport learn?

An extract from Sir Richard Branson's statement...

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When will the Department for Transport learn? Interestingly before Virgin took over the West Coast there were more passengers using the East Coast than the West Coast. Now there are 12 million fewer. Under our stewardship, the West Coast Mainline has been transformed from a public liability into a valuable asset for the UK, worth many billions of pounds. The service is a British success story and one to put up against rail companies around the world".

"It is a great shame that such a strong track record has been discounted in the evaluation process for one of the UK's most important infrastructure assets."

"Based on the current flawed system, it is extremely unlikely that we would bid again for a franchise."

"The process is too costly and uncertain, with our latest bid costing £14m. We have made realistic offers for the East Coast twice before which were rejected by the Department for Transport for completely unrealistic ones and therefore will have to think hard before embarking on another bid."

West Coasters views on Virgin

Justin Hodnett, 34, managing director of restaurant promotions company from Preston

"I use the West Coast Mainline more or less every week to visit work clients. I'm a Londoner born and bred so I also make the trip down to see family regularly. When Virgin took over the line in 1997 the journey times could be as long as four hours – now you can get from Preston to London Euston in about 2 hours and 15 minutes – you hardly have time to get settled in with a brew and cake! Some rail operators promise the world, but Richard Branson delivered. Virgin is a global brand with global reputation, but who has heard of the FirstGroup? When I use their trains to Manchester they're often late and the on-board service is poor. I'll try and avoid the West Coast Mainline when they take over the franchise".

Clive Peaple, 63, retired headteacher from Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria

"I and my family are not commuters but we use the West Coast Mainline very often, catching it at Oxenholme in Cumbria, down to Lancaster or London, so fairly long-haul. We feel a certain loyalty to Virgin trains because what came before was so bad. It felt like quite a posh service for us country cousins in the Lake District. There are still problems with the line. It isn't true that you always get a seat and occasionally a carriage experiences problems with sewage disposal, making it a toxic experience shared by all passengers. We'll wait and see what the FirstGroup can do, but I am concerned that fares will rise. At £180 for a peak-time ticket they are already awful".

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit