First to last to not at all
While the news that Virgin has lost the West Coast franchise to First Group was not totally unexpected, it still seems to have caused a load of ructions in various places. Obviously Beardie is monumenally pissed, even going so far as to describe the DfT’s decision as “insane”, while many others have pointed to First’s track record, passenger satisfaction ratings and the amount it will have to fork out as evidence that the government may have made the wrong choice. Will people miss Virgin Trains? I don’t know. I’ll say that as time has gone on, the service they have provided has gotten better. After all, it was Virgin that has overseen and introduced the huge improvements to the timetable on the WCML over the last few years, to the extent that it is already full to bursting (hence the need for the extra capacity provided by High Speed 2, but that’s another story). Virgin also drove the procurement of the Class 390 Pendolino fleet, enabling speeds equivilent to the other major route to Scotland to be attained. I’m not going to say that the Class 390 is the greatest inter-city train ever – as a place to be it’s actually kinda crap; if anyone were to attempt to introduce them on the ECML, I’ll be the first one shouting “let me travel on a Mallard“. But, they can get you from London to Manchester in two hours, which goes some way to make up for the small windows, narrow bodyshell and stinky toilets, and which is probably why more people are choosing to take the train rather than fly on this route.
So, what are we to make of First’s proposals for its new acquisition? Perhaps the banner idea is the introduction of 11 new electric trains, all six-cars long, to serve the dedicated Birmingham to Glasgow route. These are currently operated primarily by Class 221s, supplemented by Class 390s. Certainly having the route run by electric sets makes more sense, as the entire route is under wires. It would probably be cost effective if First were to purchase a fleet of six-car Pendolino type units (something that has been mooted on many an occasion), as it would increase the uniformity of its fleet. First also says it will introduce new services to places such as Blackpool, Shrewsbury and Bolton. Virgin had already identified Blackpool as a requirement with plans to start running to Blackpool North once the route was electrified, while the closure of Wrexham & Shropshire opened a gap Virgin was interested in to serve Shrewsbury direct. So, introducing new services and more seats. All well and good. But is the capacity there in the timetable to be able to achieve this? There is still the prospect of Alliance Rail, which is looking to run its own services to Blackpool (amongst other destinations), not to mention the fact that several other operators use various sections of the WCML for their own services. And why have First not stepped up and offered to procure the additional 44 Pendolino vehicles to make the whole fleet 11-car, which Virgin had offered to do, something that would go a considerable way to improving the ever stretched capacity issue. Further, given that First will oversee the introduction of considerably more electric services, why do they not come out and join CrossCountry in the eVoyager project?