They have kept the trains running, if not always on time, so it is fitting that Virgin should have secured the rights to run West Coast Main Line services until 2017.
Two years ago, Virgin Trains was set to lose the franchise to FirstGroup but that decision was overturned after the Department for Transport admitted the bidding process had been badly flawed due to mistakes by officials. The errors were only admitted after Virgin challenged the process by judicial review. As the vindicated party, and after agreeing to carry on operating the service as an interim measure, Virgin always looked to be the front-runner to win this contract (it will last until a longer-term franchise is awarded starting in April 2017).
Importantly, however, the company is also promising to up its game, by increasing capacity on what is often an overcrowded route, bringing in free superfast wi-fi and scheduling more services. Passengers to and from Scotland will also be relieved to hear Virgin is to work with Network Rail to tackle bottlenecks around the Carstairs junction; this should help improve journey times.
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Trains on the route have registered below average punctuality in recent years and passengers will want to see improvements (much of the responsibility for this rests with Network Rail rather than Virgin Trains, though in the infrastructure company's defence, West Coast is the busiest mixed-use line in Europe. It is also in better shape than it was, following an upgrade completed six years ago). If Virgin can live up to its promises to provide a better service to passengers, it will boost its credentials when the long-term franchise comes up for grabs.
But critics also point to downsides to the company's management of the route, such as huge fare rises and sometimes overcrowding. Virgin will have to work hard to impress jaded travellers if it wants to be operating this route in 10 years' time.
After all, other operators are showing just how well a busy major rail route can be run. The East Coast Main Line, which has been managed by Directly Operated Railways on behalf of the Government since National Express surrendered the franchise in 2009, has provided rich returns to the Treasury (£208.7 million last year and more over its lifetime than any previous operator).
It requires a lower subsidy than other lines and has clocked up record levels of customer satisfaction. This unplanned experiment in rail renationalisation, by defying old stereotypes about the inefficiency of public ownership, ought to give ministers pause for thought about pushing ahead with the planned reprivatisation of East Coast. While the Tory-led Coalition remains in office, however, a re-evaluation of Thatcherite orthodoxies is unlikely.
What passengers want from their train operators is rapid, affordable services, where they can be sure they will not have to stand in the vestibule or sit on their luggage due to overcrowding at any point on the route. Any company that can guarantee that on any route, has a bright future.