Virgin Trains East Coast today began full operations in an eight-year franchise for the line between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh, announcing a £3million fund for projects suggested by communities along the route.
Customers along the east coast network, which includes stations at Morpeth, Alnmouth and Berwick, will be able to bid for a share of the innovation fund to be used for projects in their neck of the woods.
The money is in addition to the £140million already committed to the franchise by the Stagecoach/Virgin partnership.
Twice-yearly stakeholder summits will be held along the network to discuss the ideas put forward, before the best ideas are given to the Secretary of State for approval.
The scheme will see £500,000 available each year of the new franchise from 2017. Until then, Virgin will seek customer feedback and gather ideas for the first set of awards.
Transport Minister Claire Perry said: “Today is the start of a new chapter for the East Coast franchise. Passengers will benefit from thousands of extra seats, new connections and improved services between London and Scotland.
“The deal also means more than £3billion will be returned to taxpayers. We are investing record amounts in building a world-class railway as part of our long-term economic plan.”
Virgin Trains East Coast is also planning to bring back freshly-cooked breakfasts for all its First Class customers as part of a series of catering improvements planned over the next two years. There will also be new menus designed by regional chefs and customers will be asked personally for their feedback and suggestions.
David Horne, managing director of Virgin Trains East Coast, added: “Passengers using the East Coast mainline are already set to benefit from hundreds of millions of pounds of infrastructure investment and service improvements over the next decade. Our new Customer and Communities Improvement Fund builds on that but puts the decision-making power firmly in the hands of the customers and communities we serve.
“The £3million fund allows Virgin Trains East Coast passengers to shape the future of their train line like never before. We will listen to what they want as we build our customer offering around our passengers. Asking the communities along the route what they want will also complement the major programmes we are committed to around helping young people and small businesses along one of Britain’s most important train lines.”
The franchise was awarded in November last year and runs until the end of March 2023, with the option for a one-year extension at the DfT’s discretion.
The new franchise builds on the successful partnership Stagecoach Group and Virgin have formed in running the West Coast mainline since 1997, and will bring major benefits to passengers, taxpayers and employees.
Passengers can look forward to new services, faster and more frequent journeys while taxpayers will benefit from significant increases in premium payments to Government over the course of the eight-year franchise.
Virgin claims the venture will transform the customer experience for around 20million journeys a year on one of the UK’s major inter-city rail routes, blending the experience, culture and service-focus of both Stagecoach and Virgin.
It lists the highlights for customers as:
* £140million investment to deliver an improved service and more personalised travel, including a £21million refresh of the existing fleet;
* £3.3billion paid in premium payments to the Government between 2015 and 2023, providing a higher return to the taxpayer than under the old franchise;
* Faster journey times – regular services to Leeds in two hours and Edinburgh in four hours;
* New trains – 65 new Super Express trains from 2018 with an early multi-million-pound train refresh programme for existing fleet;
* Better connections – extra and new direct services to London from key locations in Scotland and England and more weekend services;
* More services – a 50 per cent increase in capacity by 2020 with total fleet capacity increased by 12,200 seats;
* Better value fares – 10 per cent cut in Standard Anytime fares on long-distance journeys to and from London and Stevenage in May 2015;
* Investment in people – a fresh approach to recruitment, including new apprenticeships and the introduction of a new National Academy for Rail Professional Education with bases in York, Derby and London. Major investment in staff development and training, a new innovation council and giving employees ways to own a share of the business through employee share incentive arrangements;
* New technology – new website, smartphone apps, interactive touchscreen information points at major stations, portable technology for staff, and improved Wi-Fi;
* Personalised travel – journeys built around individual customers, with at-seat food ordering, simpler ticket purchase and reservations, new Nectar loyalty programme;
* Improved customer rights and support – new Passengers’ Charter with a commitment to improved satisfaction scores with new independent passenger surveys, benchmarks and published results to drive satisfaction with stations, trains and customer service and the dedicated Customer and Communities Improvement Fund
* Station enhancements – investment of over £25million in stations and car parks with new open-plan customer zones introduced for combined ticket purchase and information, more car-parking spaces, extra cycle facilities and improved security;
* Improved accessibility – investment in disability improvements, including induction loop and tactile station maps;
* Community engagement – apprenticeships for young people, graduate and ex-offenders programmes, support for small businesses and regeneration in disadvantaged areas.
Patrick McCall, senior partner of Virgin Group, said: “Our long-term partnership with Stagecoach has seen a revolution in customer service standards, great product innovation, reduced journey times and improved timetables on the West Coast mainline. We will deliver similar success on the East Coast and will work with the existing teams there to build on their achievements.
“Our partnership will concentrate on areas for which Virgin is famous, such as looking after our customers and our people. We have a great opportunity to blend the successes of the East Coast and the West Coast lines to create a great experience for all. Together with these new ideas and initiatives, passengers will begin to see those Virgin touches on each and every journey.”
Virgin Trains East Coast is the brand name of InterCity Railways Ltd (ICR), which is owned by Stagecoach Group (90 per cent) and Virgin Group (10 per cent). Virgin Trains East Coast began operating services on the East Coast Main Line yesterday, serving key UK cities including London, Peterborough, Doncaster, Leeds, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness. In November 2014, the Department for Transport awarded ICR a new franchise until at least March 31, 2023.