FirstGroup’s rail boss, who is set to take over services on the West Coast Main Line following a high-profile battle with Sir Richard Branson, has pledged to deliver a much better service than Virgin.
Richard Parry, interim managing director of the new operator which will provide services between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, in an exclusive interview with the Birmingham Post, said customers would enjoy refurbished trains, new services and better catering.
He pledged: “We are very confident that we have a good business plan for improvements across the service. Our plan can be delivered right through to 2026.”
And he urged Virgin to work with the new operator, owned by transport giant FirstGroup, to ensure a smooth transition. Mr Parry said: “We have been surprised at the level of the campaign that has been mobilised against the decision.”
It follows a bitter row over the Government’s decision to strip Virgin Trains of its franchise operating inter-city services on the West Coast Main Line, including many which stop at Birmingham’s New Street station.
Transport Secretary Justine Greening is backing a controversial deal handing services to FirstGroup, despite opposition from some MPs, a petition signed by more than 150,000 people and complaints by Virgin boss Sir Richard, who urged the Prime Minister to “intervene to try to get some sense into the Department for Transport”
A new 13-year West Coast franchise was won by FirstGroup after it offered a bid worth around £10 billion to operate the line – more than Virgin, which offered a bid worth around £8.6 billion.
Reacting angrily to the decision, Sir Richard claimed that FirstGroup would find it impossible to pay that much and still provide a good service to passengers.
He branded the decision “insane” and launched a legal challenge designed to delay the final contract signing.
The Commons Transport Committee has also urged the Department for Transport to delay signing the contracts until after it had a chance to quiz Ministers about the decision, while a petition signed by more than 150,000 people, including double Olympic champion Mo Farah, Apprentice star Lord Sugar and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, called for a rethink.
And Labour urged Mrs Greening not to sign off the contract until MPs have been able to scrutinise it in detail.
But she insisted she would press ahead with the deal, saying her department had run a “very fair, robust and vigorous” contest, and FirstGroup, which already runs four other rail franchises across the UK, had submitted the best bid.
FirstGroup, which will begin operating services on December 9 and run the franchise until March 2026, has promised to invest £350 million over the first five years, including introducing six new trains to the West Coast Main Line fleet which will be used to improve services from Birmingham to Scotland.
This is on top of the 106 new carriages which Virgin was already in the process of adding to services.