FirstGroup secures approval for new route

New Edinburgh-London rail service approved

Tim O'TooleRail passengers are to be offered a budget-priced alternative route between Scotland and London.

FirstGroup has won approval to operate five trains a day each way, connecting London King’s Cross and Edinburgh, via Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth.

The service will begin in 2021 with average fares of less than £25, free Wi-Fi and on-board catering in one class of travel.

The ten-year track plan was backed by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and will enable the group’s East Coast Trains to compete with the main route trains and air travel.

The deal will be a challenge to Stagecoach and Virgin Trains whose Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) operates the main line service under a 90-10 joint venture.

They have said that the new open access rules would make it impossible to pay the £3.1 billion in excess profits promised to the government over the next eight years.

In a statement today, Stagecoach said these services “are expected to impact revenue from VTEC services”.

Martin Griffiths, chief executive of Stagecoach, said: “With respect to the decision on open access between London and Edinburgh, we do not believe the granting of these services within a franchised system and without a level playing field is in the best interests of passengers, taxpayers or communities.

“We will assess the ORR decision and implications in detail and review our options.”

A report from consultancy CH2M concluded that open access competition can, depending on differing business models and effective timetabling, mean that VTEC should minimal impact on its services.

Last year, following its successful bid to run the East Coast rail franchise, Stagecoach was told to address competition concerns if was to avoid an in-depth merger investigation.

Commenting on FirstGroup’s successful bid, Tim O’Toole (pictured), chief executive, said: “This is great news for passengers, as our new service will widen the choice of travel options between these cities and offer an attractive alternative to those available today.

“Now that our application has been approved and we have been granted rights we will implement the next steps to deliver our proposals which include discussions with Network Rail and rolling stock manufacturers.”

The ORR has also approved an application from Virgin Trains East Coast to run new services between London and Edinburgh, Harrogate, Lincoln and Middlesbrough. These services formed part of VTEC’s successful bid for the East Coast rail franchise, which started in March 2015 and is planned to run until at least 31 March 2023.

VTEC’s core existing timetable has been approved from December 2017 when the current access contract expires.  In addition, VTEC has been granted firm rights for service extensions to Bradford, Lincoln and Harrogate from May 2019, and for Edinburgh and Middlesbrough from May 2021. Should capacity become available sooner, VTEC’s additional rights for service extensions to Edinburgh could start from May 2019.

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