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Virgin Trains: Final service departs as UK's longest-running rail franchise ends


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Britain’s longest-running rail franchise came to an end on Saturday after more than 22 years.

Virgin Trains, which began serving the West Coast Main Line in 1997, is being replaced by Avanti West Coast.

Almost 500 million journeys have been made with Virgin Trains, which is co-owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Stagecoach.

The final service pulled out of London Euston at 21:42 GMT, bound for Wolverhampton.

But the historic day was marred by disruption when Virgin’s last-ever London to Manchester service terminated early at Stockport due to a train fault just before midnight.

Earlier, Sir Richard tweeted his thanks to “all our wonderful people” and their “incredible work”.

Avanti West Coast, which will begin running the service on Sunday, told customers that tickets booked with Virgin Trains for upcoming journeys are still valid.

The end of the franchise comes after Virgin Group and Stagecoach had their bid to continue running trains on the line disqualified by the Department for Transport (DfT) in April because they did not meet pension rules.

The companies are suing the DfT over its decision.

At the time, Sir Richard said he was “devastated” by the disqualification.

‘Certain panache’

Virgin Trains, which is 49% owned by Stagecoach, introduced a series of innovations on the railways, including automatic delay compensation payments, a system to allow passengers to stream films and TV programmes on demand from their own devices, and the provision of digital tickets available for all fare types.

Rail expert Mark Smith, founder of Seat61.com, said the operator had, with the help of major infrastructure improvements, “transformed” its network by almost tripling passenger numbers and doubling services on some routes such as London to Glasgow.

“I think they’ve done pretty well,” he said. “They do have a certain panache and they communicate that to the staff and to the service. Quirky things like the toilets that talk to you, to onboard service with the food and wine. I’m going to be sorry to see them go.”

The service has had a variable record – the proportion of Virgin trains which arrived at their final destination within 10 minutes of the timetable ranged from 33% in the final quarter of 2000 to 91% between July-September 2010.

The latest figure, for July-September 2019, was 78%.

‘More reliable wi-fi’

Virgin Trains managing director Phil Whittingham, who will hold the same position with the new operator, said he was “concentrating on a smooth handover” to Avanti, adding: “It’s been a wonderful 22 years transforming services on the west coast and we’re proud of everything our people have achieved in that time.”

Avanti West Coast is owned by First Trenitalia, a partnership between Aberdeen-based FirstGroup and Italian firm Trenitalia.

The operator said it would introduce a range of passenger improvements, including 263 more weekly services by 2022, when 23 new trains will begin service.

The existing fleet of Pendolino trains will be refurbished – promising 25,000 new seats, more reliable wi-fi and better catering.





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