The first train on the West Coast Main Line under its new operator pulled out of Glasgow’s Central Station at 8.25am this morning.

Passengers will have noticed very little difference – a new decal of an elongated triangle on an old train, minor changes to the staff uniforms (a different tie and winter coats), but it will be the same faces delivering the same service.

However, if that service is late, travellers will receive compensation after 15 minutes, rather than the previous 30.

The new franchise holder is Avanti West Coast, a partnership between the Aberdeen-based FirstGroup and Italian state operator, Trenitalia.

Virgin Trains, owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Stagecoach, ran it for more than 22 years but was disqualified from continuing by the Department for Transport in April due to a row over pensions liabilities. The companies are now suing the DfT over its decision.

An Avanti spokesman stressed that change will come “ever so slightly” and be rolled out gradually. Hardly surprising when under Branson’s stewardship Virgin recorded the highest passenger satisfaction rating of any franchised train operator in Britain in the most recent survey by watchdog Transport Focus.

The latest punctuality figures show that between July and September, 78% arrived at their final destination within 10 minutes of the timetable. All of the Virgin staff, including the senior management, are transferring over to Avanti, or forward in Italian. Virgin Trains managing director Phil Whittingham, who will hold the same position with the new operator, said: “It’s been a wonderful 22 years transforming services on the west coast and we’re proud of everything our people have achieved in that time.

“We’re concentrating on a smooth handover to Avanti, who will be running services from Sunday. Customers should carry on booking and travelling as normal.”

Avanti has pledged to make a series of improvements and innovations, including refurbishment of the existing Pendolino and Super Voyager trains, more seats – the Pendolinos will have 25,000 extra eventually – and 263 more weekly services by 2022, when 23 new trains begin entering service. There is also a pledge to provide better catering and enhanced wifi.

From December 2022 there will be more stops at Motherwell as well as more Saturday night and Sunday services. The 23 new electric trains – built at a cost of £350 million by Hitachi – will replace the diesel Voyager trains presently linking Glasgow to London via the northwest of England and Birmingham.

There is a new website for bookings and information, and a pledge to improve the booking system, which is notoriously unreliable, as well as the “bigger spend” on trains. First currently has three other rail franchises – Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and TransPennine Express – while Trenitalia runs the Essex Thameside franchise operating from Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street.

Virgin’s last service was the 9.42pm departure from London Euston to Wolverhampton last night. More than 500 million passenger journeys have been made under Virgin, the loss of which was described by Branson as devastating.

Virgin Trains East Coast, another joint venture between Virgin and Stagecoach, controversially ended its contract in June last year after failing to meet revenue targets and to pay the £3.3 billion fee to the Government.

Virgin did launch a series of innovations, including the 30-minute (now 15) automatic delay compensation payments, an entertainment system allowing passengers to stream films and TV programmes on demand using their own devices, and making digital tickets available for all fare types. Even a talking toilet, which urged passengers not to dispose of their unmentionables down it.

Rail expert Mark Smith, founder of, said Virgin – aided by major Government-funded infrastructure improvements through Network Rail – had “transformed” its network by almost tripling passenger numbers and doubling services on routes like Glasgow to London. “They do have a certain panache and they communicate that to the staff and to the service,” he said.

The Avanti franchise is due to run for seven years. However, Labour, if they win this week’s General Election, have pledged to renationalise the entire rail network. The regional organiser of transport union the RMT, Mick Hogg, commented that “the franchising model is broken and is no longer fit for purpose – billions of taxpayers’ money since privatisation has been used to pay stakeholders opposed to investing in our railway”.

He added: “The West Coast franchise being launched this weekend does nothing for passengers – it’s the same old spin with the same old model of ripping off passengers and our railway.”