SHORTER journey times, station upgrades, refurbished train interiors, better catering and an improved ticketing system are all promised when FirstGroup takes over the running of trains on the West Coast Mainline (WCML) later this year.
Can passengers between Glasgow or Edinburgh and London really expect this brave new world to come to pass after December 9?
The Virgin/Stagecoach partnership lost the franchise because FirstGroup contracted to pay premiums of £5.5 billion to the Department for Transport over the 13-year contract. That was significantly more than Virgin, whose founder Sir Richard Branson denounced his rival's bid as not possible without dramatic cuts to customer quality and considerable fare rises. This raises not only the question of whether the FirstGroup bid is sustainable but the more fundamental one of whether the system of awarding franchises is fit for purpose. It encourages operators to submit the most optimistic bids possible in terms of payments to Government as a percentage of turnover but if their projections prove wrong, it is the taxpayer who picks up the pieces.
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