Virgin to run fast trains to Paris

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The Independent Online
RICHARD BRANSON'S Virgin empire is proposing to run high-speed trains through the Channel tunnel in competition with Eurostar, operated by its arch-rival, British Airways.

Virgin, which already operates the West Coast and CrossCountry services, plans to make Watford an international rail hub offering five daily trips to Paris and Brussels. The service could start running early next January.

The proposals, which have been seen by The Independent, also envisage Virgin running high-speed trains to the Continent from Scotland, Manchester, York, Newcastle and Birmingham.

The move by Mr Branson will steal some of the thunder from British Airways - which earlier this month won the right to run Eurostar services from Waterloo, London, to the Continent. However, it is understood that BA has rejected the option to link northern towns to European capitals.

BA and Virgin remain fiercely competitive. The two tussled first for the skies above the Atlantic, then bid for the same pieces of the nation's domestic train set when it was being sold off.

On both occasions, Virgin won. But the most recent battle saw BA secure the prestigious Eurostar service.

That has not deterred Virgin. Its managers believe their plan will not only bring thousands of jobs to the north, but also offer high-speed services to those living north-west of London.

Although promised for the best part of a decade, regional Eurostar services - dubbed "rides to the north" - have remained a dream. When the Channel tunnel was opened six years ago, the then Tory government pledged that services would be introduced to link Glasgow, Preston, Manchester and Cardiff with Paris and Brussels - but little has emerged.

The company then running Eurostar, conscious of that promise, ran an express train to Waterloo. This collected passengers from the north of England and delivered them to the Eurostar terminal.

However, the connecting service did not catch on and was rarely used by the public. It was withdrawn in 1996.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is determined to get the service back on track. He told MPs last week that "the trains for those services are currently lying idle" and that he would review the situation later this year.

Mr Branson's managers plan to rent seven Eurostars - worth pounds 25m each and currently sitting in sidings in London and Manchester - and use them to run up and down the east- and west-coast lines. The plan would see cheap tickets for passengers - with fares to the Continent as low as pounds 89 for travellers from the North-west.

Astonishingly, Virgin is promising to run the international services with no public subsidy. The trip from Glasgow to Paris would take nearly 11 hours, but Virgin insists there is a market for such journeys, pointing out that 60,000 people a year make a journey of a similar length from Aberdeen to London.

If Virgin gets the go-ahead, more than 1 million passengers a year will be using the service.