A partnership of UK-based First Group and Italian firm Trenitalia has been announced as the successful bidder to operate the West Coast mainline.
The partnership will replace Virgin/Stagecoach and take over the running of the West Coast main line train route from London to Glasgow from December, in a move that ministers claim will provide passengers with new trains, more seats, simplified fares and more frequent services.
First Trenitalia will also act as the shadow operator responsible for HS2. The government will shortly launch a review into HS2, and ministers say the partnership has been designed in order to ensure that it can implement the review’s outcomes.
Both the transport secretary Grant Shapps and Keith Williams, chair of the Williams Rail Review, have heralded the partnership as vital to deliver the swift introduction of significant benefits for passengers. The say the new partnership is also designed to fit with the direction of the Review and to facilitate the implementation of Williams’ recommendations in due course.
However, the Labour party and rail union the RMT have both roundly criticised the news, with shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald describing the award as a “gross error of judgement,” and RMT general secretary Mick Cash deriding the award as “just another political fix.”
The government says the new contract reflects a significant move away from the previous flawed franchising system to tackle issues already highlighted by the Williams Review, with the use of a forecast revenue mechanism (FRM) to avoid a repeat of the issues that affected the previous East Coast Main Line.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “This award is positive news for passengers, with more services, more direct connections and ambitious plans for a cleaner, greener railway, and also represents a decisive shift towards a new model for rail. It is a partnership supported by Keith Williams, built with the flexibility to respond to his recommendations and deliver fundamental reform to a flawed system.”
Keith Williams, chair of the Rail Review, said: “The railway needs reform that prioritises the customers and communities it serves, with an absolute focus on delivering benefits for passengers. I have also been clear that my review must not stop or delay investment and innovation. This West Coast Partnership delivers for passengers. It is a step forward that is firmly in line with the review, introducing benefits for passengers today and capable of incorporating the reforms needed for the future.”
The new deal will see 263 extra train services every week from December 2022, and First Trenitalia will also oversee the introduction of new environmentally-friendly trains, entirely replacing the diesel-only fleet and aiming to reduce CO2 emissions by 61%. It will also invest £117m in a major refurbishment of the current Pendolino fleet.
Sir John Peace, chair of Midlands Connect and Midlands Engine said: “This new franchise is a fresh opportunity to guarantee our region benefits from the quality railway it needs and deserves. There’s a lot of work to do to prepare for the arrival of high speed services in Birmingham in 2026 and make sure the region is ready to take advantage of the capacity HS2 will release on the existing West Coast Mainline for both passengers and freight. It’s encouraging to see First Trenitalia making a clear commitment to more services, better stations, clearer fairs, and greener trains. These things are important to Midlands Connect, they’re important to our partnership, and above all they’re important to the people who travel to, from and through the Midlands.”
But the response from both the Labour Party and the RMT was much more critical.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “Awarding a complex contract for both the West Coast Partnership and HS2 services to First Group, a company with questions over its finances, is a gross error of judgement. It’s time for our railways to be brought into public ownership so they are run in the interests of passengers instead of ripping them off to line the pockets of profiteers and shareholders.”
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "The announcement that First Trenitalia are being shunted on to the West Coast mainline to replace Virgin/Stagecoach in the midst of the rail staff pension row is just another political fix by a government whose privatised franchise model is collapsing around their ears. Instead of following the popular public sector route, the Tories are taking yet another gamble on the crucial West Coast lines with one of the dwindling number of private operator consortia left in the game, in a move that RMT believes is doomed to failure and sure to result in yet more rail chaos.”