Scottish transport firm FirstGroup has pledged to refurbish trains and better Virgin’s service after being awarded a 12-year contract to operate Scotland-London services on the west coast main line.
Aberdeen-registered First will team up with Italian state operator Trenitalia to also run HS2 from 2026 if it is built.
The 70/30 split First Trenitalia consortium takes over Glasgow and Edinburgh to London Euston trains on 8 December from Virgin Trains, 22 years after it succeeded British Rail on the route.
Owner Sir Richard Branson said he was “devastated” for staff “who have worked tirelessly to become the top-rated franchise by customers”. They will transfer to the new firm.
However, Virgin’s partner Stagecoach is continuing its legal battle with the UK Government over being barred from bidding to retain the franchise over pensions rules.
First Rail managing director Steve Montgomery, who previously ran ScotRail for the company, said Virgin had “done a very good job” but ministers were looking to “step up the customer offer”.
He expected the first of the 17-year-old electric tilting Pendolino fleet to be refurbished in a year’s time with new seats and more luggage space.
Virgin’s similar-vintage diesel Voyagers, used for some Scotland-London services via Birmingham, will be replaced with an undisclosed type of brand new electric trains.
Mr Montgomery said wifi would be improved and become free for all passengers.
A free app-based film and TV streaming service will replace Virgin’s BEAM. More trains will stop at Motherwell.
The new “West Coast Partnership” franchise operators will pay the UK Government £1.6 billion to 2026.
The win will further boost First’s operations in Scotland.
It already runs cross-Border TransPennine Express and is due to launch budget services between Edinburgh and London with new trains on the east coast main line in 2021.
Boris Johnston ordered a review of HS2, London-Birmingham, after becoming Prime Minister last month.
David Sidebottom, a director of watchdog Transport Focus, welcomed passenger priorities of value for money, getting a seat and more frequent and punctual trains being “at the heart” of the new franchise.
He said: “First Trenitalia has a real opportunity to shape the future and integrate the smooth running of HS2 with the West Coast Partnership.”
But Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, the main rail union, said: “The announcement that First Trenitalia are being shunted on to the west coast main line 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.”