Virgin plans bid for Great Western franchise

Virgin Rail yesterday registered its intention to bid for the FirstGroup's Great Western franchise, revealing a plan to use aircraft technology to slash journey times.

Chris Green, chief executive of Virgin's two existing franchises, estimates that with the help of gas-turbine propulsion, trains could get from London to Bristol in an hour compared with the present 95 minutes.

The company, which runs the CrossCountry and West Coast Mainline franchises, said it was interested in running all Inter-City Express Services.

Although Great Western's licence is not due to be renewed until 2006, Mr Green said the bidding process was likely to begin next year and that Virgin and Stagecoach, the bus and rail group, were interested in a joint venture. Mr Green said: "While no one has put Great Western up for sale yet, we are prepared to bid for it. We have unparalleled experience in running vast inter-city services and we are ideally placed to take over the franchise. It will need an imaginative bid aimed at securing radical improvement in journey times."

Virgin has already submitted a bid for the licence presently in the possession of Great North Eastern Railway, which runs trains between London and Edinburgh.

Sir Richard Branson's company has proposed the construction of more than 120 miles of new track on the east coast route, with trains running up to 205 miles an hour.

First Great Western, which enjoys a revenue of more than £200m a year, could be vulnerable to an intervention by Virgin and Stagecoach after criticism in the wake of the Ladbroke Grove disaster last October.

Virgin argues that the only practical way to reduce journey times on Great Western Services from London to south-west England and south Wales is by the use of power cars equipped with gas-turbine engines converted to use less combustible diesel as fuel.

Managers at Virgin believe gas-turbine trains will be wide-spread in four years time, running at up to 150 miles an hour. It considered gas-turbine trains for the East Coast Mainline licence, but concludedelectric trains were the best long-term option. Electrification on the Great Western routes is regarded as uneconomic because of the number of branches.

Meanwhile, Virgin told passengers using its West Coast services yesterday that cancellations and delays would be inevitable this summer, while the infrastructure near Euston is modernised as part of the £5.8bn project to improve services. Around 8 per cent of weekday services may be cut.