By Scott Wright

FIRSTGROUP and Trenitalia have been given the go-ahead to start running the West Coast rail franchise after agreeing to cap fares on certain routes between Preston and Scotland.

The decision to award the First Trenitalia partnership the deal to take over the franchise from Virgin– run by Stagecoach and Virgin Trains – caught the attention of the competition watchdog, which warned it may lead to higher fares and reduced availability of cheaper tickets.

The Competition and Market Authority’s concerns centred on 21 routes, including 17 between Preston and Scotland where passengers would have only been able to choose West Coast Rail, operated by FirstGroup and Trenitalia, or TransPennine Express, run solely by FirstGroup.

But the watchdog said has now accepted proposals from First Trenitalia to address those concerns. The remedies agreed will see caps placed on unregulated fares and the availability of cheaper advance tickets maintained at the same level on services where competition issues were raised. The CMA said the measures mean the award of the franchise can now go ahead without a more in-depth Phase 2 investigation.

The West Coast franchise is one of the UK’s most important rail links, connecting Glasgow’s Central Station with Euston in London. First Trenitalia will run services under the new Avanti brand.

FirstGroup said: “We are pleased with the CMA’s acceptance of our proposal to cap unregulated fares on the routes between Preston and Scotland, ahead of FirstGroup and Trenitalia beginning to operate Avanti West Coast services this weekend.”

Separately, First Trenitalia announced it has awarded a contract worth more than

£350 million to Hitachi Rail to provide and maintain 23 intercity trains, to be built at its County Durham factory. The trains, which will bring more capacity to the West Coast and North Wales, will start operating from 2022.