Virgin, First Group and the North Wales Coast Mainline

Many constituents have contacted me since the announcement of the success of First Group in winning the franchise for the West Coast mainline which includes services utilising the North Wales Coast line.  I must admit to being surprised by this decision.  Whilst it is apparent that the winning bid from First Group was some £1billion in excess of the Virgin bid it is difficult to see that they won the bid on any other criteria.

I have used the Virgin service twice a week since being elected and it is excellent.  Yes, there has been the occasional delay but these have been mainly the result of Network Rail problems rather than issues arising from the operations of Virgin.  Their staff, who I anticipate will be transferred under TUPE, are invariably polite and have a willingness to serve that is remarkably rare in the UK.  As for their rolling stock and service offer within the trains I would simply compare and contrast what Virgin has achieved with what First Group has managed with their First great Western franchise that serves South Wales.

When the Welsh Select Committee met in North Wales,  I was the only member who did travel regularly on Virgin (I am the only MP from North Wales on the committee).  My colleagues from South Wales were flabbergasted at the difference between the service and rolling stock utilised by Virgin when compared to what they endure with First Great Western.  As such, it is very difficult not to conclude that the promise of significant jam tomorrow swung the bid in favour of First Group.

So what should we now do?  I fully accept that the procedure followed by the Department of Transport appears to have been fair and equitable and it does seem slightly odd that Sir Richard Branson is only now complaining about the process and yet….

I find it difficult not to conclude that the calls from my fellow Virgin Train user Louise Ellman MP, the Chairman of the Transport Select Committee, for a period of time to be allowed for the decision to be examined is a sensible option.  This is a fifteen year contract for the most used and most valuable franchise on our railways.  Would a short delay before signing the contract in order to ensure that everybody is convinced that the First Group bid can be delivered not be for the benefit of all involved?  I have agreed to meet with Virgin and First Group upon returning to Westminster and I hope that those meetings will be about the issue of service levels and deliverable targets and not proposed court action.  I do wonder whether signing the deal before the end of August is sending out a message that the Transport Minister does not want the process to be scrutinised and as such the question raised in the minds of numerous constituents is why?

The Virgin / First Group tussle is the second issue of uncertainty to have impacted the North Wales Coast line this summer.  During the past nine months I have met three of the bidders for the franchise and all were making promises to significantly enhance the use of the North Wales Coast line with the prospect of hourly services from Llandudno Junction to Euston in well under three hours being seen as a real possibility by all three companies that I met.  A key issue however is the need to upgrade the signalling on the North Wales line which is a barrier to increased speed and an increased frequency of service.

I accept that despite electrification of the South Wales mainline and the Valley lines in South Wales it was improbable that such an investment would be made in North Wales.  However, I did have some hope that we would have heard about an investment in the signalling system which would have contributed to improved and more frequent services in North Wales.  Indeed, the evidence received by the Welsh Select Committee on the prospects of improved railway links between North Wales and the North West of England have also highlighted the same message – poor signalling is a barrier to the development of better and more frequent services into North Wales.

The leader of Conwy Council has written to the Welsh Office to express his disappointment at the announcement and I have also written to the Secretary of State to express my congratulations at the investment secured for south Wales and my hope that North Wales will not be forgotten.  With David Jones MP being a Minister in the Welsh Office that should not be the case but businesses and constituents are, once more, witnessing massive investment into South Wales and nothing allocated to the North.  They, and I, are bemused at the continuation of a situation which has long been complained about by North Wales Conservatives.  As the electrification of the line from Crewe to Chester is undertaken the feeling that you are going from a first world service at Chester to a third world service travelling west will be even more pronounced than it is today.  That will be bad for business and bad for tourism and in turn a real blow to the economy of North Wales.