29th Jun, 2022

Fears over future of Coventry rail services after government's Virgin Trains snub

Felix Nobes 11th Apr, 2019 Updated: 18th Apr, 2019

VIRGIN TRAINS may no longer be operating from Coventry station after the company’s joint contract to deliver West Coast Main Line services was snubbed.

The trains which connect London, Coventry and Birmingham are set to be operated by another provider from as early as November.

It follows a decision by the government’s Department for Transport (DfT) to block Scottish company Stagecoach – Virgin’s West Coast joint venture partner – from operating the West Coast Partnership franchise and two others after a row over staff pensions.

As a consequence, Virgin Train’s latest bid to continue its operation beyond then has been snubbed.

A new operator of the West Coast Partnership is set to be selected in June.

Coventry opposition Conservative councillors have addressed a letter to the government’s transport secretary Chris Grayling asking for assurances that the city’s three fast trains to London per hour will be safeguarded.

They also seek commitment that the £82million renovation of Coventry railway station will not be affected by the potential changes.

The Virgin Trains company is a joint venture involving Virgin Group and Stagecoach.

Leader of the Conservatives Coun Gary Ridley and Coun Allan Andrews said in their letter to Mr Grayling: “We are writing to seek assurances from you about the future of the rail service connecting the city to London.

“It is vital to the city’s economy and development that the current level of service continues.

“As such we would like to seek your assurance on the following points: That the three fast services per hour are protected in the franchise requirements; that these services will be protected as a minimum service after the commencement of the HS2 service; that the renovation of Coventry railway station will continue; that free Wi-Fi be the standard on all services.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “It is regrettable that they (Stagecoach) submitted non-compliant bids for all current competitions which breached established rules and, in doing so, they are responsible for their own disqualification.

“Stagecoach chose to propose significant changes to the commercial terms for the East Midlands, West Coast Partnership and South Eastern contracts, leading to bids which proposed a significantly different deal to the ones on offer.”

VIRGIN AND STAGECOACH RESPOND

Stagecoach Group chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “We are extremely concerned at both the DfT’s decision and its timing.

“The department has had full knowledge of these bids for a lengthy period and we are seeking an urgent meeting to discuss our significant concerns.

“We bid consistent with industry guidance issued by the Rail Delivery Group and shared with the DfT.

“Without ongoing government support for the long-term funding of railway pensions, The Pensions Regulator has indicated that an additional £5billion to £6billion would be needed to plug the gap in train company pensions.

“In contrast, the rail industry proposed solution would have delivered an additional £500million to £600million into the scheme.

“This would have provided better stability and security for members and much better value for taxpayers.

“We are shocked that the government has rejected this for a higher risk approach.

“We would urge that a full independent value for money review is undertaken into this issue without delay.

“Forcing rail companies to take these risks could lead to the failure of more rail franchises and cannot be in the best long-term interests of either customers, employees, taxpayers or the investors the railway needs for it to prosper.”

Mr Branson said: “This means that Virgin Trains could be gone from the UK in November.

“Running the railway comes with many challenges and the West Coast Main Line was struggling when we took it over, but we were determined to turn it around.

“With new trains, new track and our incredible team, we have become renowned for the award-winning way we look after our customers.

“We’re baffled why the DfT did not tell us that we would be disqualified or even discuss the issue – they have known about this qualification in our bid on pensions for months.

“Our first priority is always to look after our teams. The pensions regulator has warned that more cash will be needed in the future, but no one knows how big that bill might eventually be and no responsible company could take that risk with pensions.”

In a letter to transport secretary Chris Grayling, The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) general secretary Mick Cash says: “In light of the decision to bar Stagecoach from bidding for franchises I am writing to urge you now to bring to an end the franchising fiasco.

“The franchise system is now teetering on the brink and I would urge you to take urgent action to protect passengers and rail workers.

“The network needs to be returned to public ownership and as first step all Stagecoach contracts should be bought in house immediately.”

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