Virgin Aims to Reignite West Coast Rail Competition with New Service Proposal

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is planning a return to Britain’s railways, proposing up to four new services on the West Coast main line, which it previously operated.

Virgin has submitted proposals to run separate train services between London Euston and Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Glasgow Central on an open access basis. This move directly challenges Avanti West Coast, operated by Virgin’s former rival FirstGroup. Two of Virgin’s proposed services would use train paths currently held by Avanti, while the Manchester route would also extend to Rochdale, a destination FirstGroup intends to serve with its Lumo brand.

Government policies have encouraged more open access rail services like Lumo and Grand Central to foster competition with main line operators. However, these proposals are controversial within the rail industry, with leaders viewing them as inefficient and the RMT union labelling them “parasitic.”

A Virgin Group spokesperson confirmed that applications had been lodged with the Office of Rail and Road, describing it as “just the first step towards exploring what might be possible.” They highlighted Virgin Trains’ legacy on the West Coast, noting significant reductions in journey times, tripling of key route services, and a rise in passenger numbers from 8 million to 42 million annually during their 20-year tenure.

“We’re confident customers would welcome Virgin Trains back, providing them with much-needed choice and competition,” the spokesperson added.

This bid marks a direct challenge to the troubled Avanti West Coast service and could reignite an old rivalry with FirstGroup. In 2012, FirstGroup briefly won the rights to the lucrative London-Manchester-Glasgow line from Virgin Trains, leading Branson and partner Stagecoach to launch legal action, although they were ultimately barred from bidding again in 2019, when FirstGroup took control.

Virgin’s potential return promises to shake up the UK rail market, offering passengers more options and potentially improving service standards through increased competition.