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West Coast deal could include Stirling to London service

DIRECT trains between Stirling and London are being planned as part of a West Coast rail franchise deal due to be signed today, The Herald has learned.

Virgin Trains has revived plans to provide the first cross-border service to the city as part of its interim management of the flagship London to Scotland route until 2014. It had hoped to introduce a daily service in December 2016, but sources close to the talks with the Department for Transport (DfT) said the timing is now less certain and requires civil service approval.

Though its interim franchise will only run until 2014, Virgin is thought to be keen to avoid accusations it will be overseeing a "standstill" period without any improvements for passengers.

"The Government and Virgin will look at a number of things that were in the original bid, including the possibility of services to and from Stirling," an industry source said.

"But it will have to fight its corner with other options like improving services to Blackpool, Liverpool and other places on the route. It will only happen if the DfT thinks it's worth doing."

Cuts to the Scottish Government's £1 billion Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme are likely to lead to delays as electrification of the Stirling route, originally due by 2016 as part of the project, has been put back to a later phase.

This would need to be completed before the electric Pendolino trains used by Virgin on the West Coast main line could travel north to Stirling.

In its first bid, Virgin planned to introduce an early morning train from London Euston to Stirling on weekdays and a return service heading south in the afternoon, with a later departure time at weekends. These would miss out Glasgow.

As well as providing a boost for passengers in Stirling, the service would help relieve overcrowding on London to Glasgow trains.

This would not provide any direct commercial benefit to Virgin as it would only apply after its franchise extension expired. But a precedent for such action had been set with the introduction of longer tilting Pendolinos on the West Coast route over the last year, the source said.

Meanwhile, the Centrica boss is today expected to publish a damning report into the original competition to run the lucrative West Coast franchise, which was won by First Group only to be cancelled due to unacceptable errors at the DfT.

Last month's interim report found civil servants had overseen a biased bidding process.

The DfT declined to comment.

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