THE man in charge of the new East Coast rail franchise has vowed the service will be better under private control.
Virgin boss promises cheaper fares, more journeys and hot food at passengers’ seats
If the lights are about to go out we know that the Government can step in take over. But the economics of the franchise did not allow for the sorts of investment that we are seeing.Claire Perry
David Horne, managing director of Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC), which had its first full day in charge of the route yesterday, has promised extra services between Edinburgh and London, faster journey times, reductions in the most expensive fares, and hot food delivered to passengers’ seats.
VTEC – a joint venture between Virgin and Stagecoach – was awarded the East Coast franchise despite protests over the government’s decision to re-privatise a business which appeared to prosper under public ownership.
The two previous private contracts for running the route collapsed and it has been operated since 2009 by publicly-owned East Coast Trains, which returned more than £1 billion to the taxpayer along with £40 million profits.
But Mr Horne said he believed the private sector could do a better job. “I’m certain it’s the right approach for passengers and the taxpayer,” he said.
“We’ve got a big package of improvements we’re committed to delivering for customers, and for taxpayers we’re committed to paying the UK government £3.3bn over the next eight years, which compares very well with the £1bn East Coast paid over the last five.
“There are two major transport operators behind the franchise. Clearly on the West Coast route they have a lot of experience of what it takes to make a business like this a success; the plans have been stress-tested financially and we’re very confident we can succeed.”
Westminster rail minister Claire Perry defended the reprivatisation, saying the necessary investment on the route could not be made with the franchise being run in the public sector.
Speaking at London’s King’s Cross station, where Virgin showed off the new East Coast trains’ livery, she said: “This is a better deal for taxpayers.
“If the lights are about to go out, we know the government can step in and take over. But the economics of the franchise did not allow for the sorts of investment that we are seeing. What we see today is the best of the private sector.”
From May 2016, there will be two additional services between Edinburgh and London every Sunday, and from May 2019, two trains per hour between the two capitals throughout the day, Monday to Friday.
Average Edinburgh-London journey times are to be cut from four hours 25 minutes to four hours ten minutes from May 2019. From May 2020, one of the two trains per hour from Edinburgh to London will take under four hours.
A new service from Stirling is being introduced from December, leaving at 5:20am to enable people to get to London before 11am, with a return service leaving London in the afternoon.
The cost of “anytime” fares – the most expensive tickets, with maximum flexibility – is due to be cut by 10 per cent from the current Edinburgh-London prices of £156.50 single and £313 return. There is no commitment to reducing other fares.
Mr Horne also promised improved catering. “We’re going to be bringing back freshly-cooked breakfasts in first class, cooked by a chef on board.
“And in standard class we plan to give passengers the ability to order hot food which will be delivered to them in their seats. We’re planning to trial this on trains between London and Aberdeen and Inverness.”
He said smartphones were being issued to frontline staff so they had information at their fingertips to help customers.
And he said there was an “aspiration” to offer free wifi, but other improvements would have to be put in place first to enable such a move.
Mr Horne said later this year VTEC would begin a £21m makeover of existing trains, and by 2020 there would be a new fleet of 65 trains to replace the current 45-strong stock.
Mick Hogg, regional organiser Scotland for the RMT rail union, said there was no need for reprivatisation.
Passenger Focus expressed concern at Virgin’s decision to phase out the Rewards scheme for passengers and replace it with a Nectar points loyalty scheme instead. But Mr Horne said research showed it fitted with what passengers wanted.
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