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Monday 13 September 2010

Virgin On The Resurrected – 1

Like mainstream party politics, the rail industry’s comings and goings can be a funny old game at times. And in the past two years or so, nothing has illustrated this better than the fall and rise in the stock of Virgin Trains (VT), the operator that runs services out of London’s Euston terminus to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow (as well as Crewe).

The expectation until very recently was that, come 2012, VT would lose their franchise and last presence on the UK’s rail map. They had already lost the Cross Country operation, although Arriva, who won that battle, have not exactly covered themselves in glory since.

Such was the dislike within Government for VT that, when agreement came to lengthen many of the fleet of Pendolino trains – as well as adding a few more complete ones – it was stressed that this additional capacity would be available only after the franchise renewal date. VT would, by inference, no longer be around.

And then came the contract to ready the additional Pendolino coaches and complete trains. After the obligatory bidding, it was awarded to ... a part of the Virgin Rail Group. But all the new equipment was not to be used in service by VT. By now it was starting to get silly.

It got sillier. The realisation dawned on the Department For Transport – known by many in the industry, with good reason, as DaFT – that any new trains readied for service before franchise change day in 2012 would be sitting around doing nothing, as VT would not be allowed to operate them. So a cunning plan was hatched, so cunning that some who should have known better took it at face value and failed to subject it to a reality check.

The franchise to operate InterCity trains out of London’s Kings Cross terminus to Newcastle and Edinburgh – the East Coast Main Line (ECML) – had been handed back by its previous operators, and is now a Proper Public Operation. This line, like the West Coast Main Line (WCML) where VT operate, was electrified. So one of the new trains could provide extra capacity on the ECML. Simples.

Except it wasn’t. The Pendolino trains are totally different to any of the train types in use on the ECML. There would have to be driver training just for one daily round trip, or drivers would have to be taken from VT, and then learn the road or be piloted. Reservation systems and catering facilities were different. And the ECML’s rescue locomotives can’t couple to a Pendolino, so if the new train “sat down” on the job, there would be even more chaos than usual.

Realisation grew that this was indeed a DaFT idea. But VT also had a cunning plan.

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