FirstGroup aiming to take on West Coast line on schedule

The transport group that beat Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Rail to win the West Coast main line yesterday said it still expected to commence the franchise as scheduled despite a legal challenge.

FirstGroup was awarded the London to Scotland line by the Department for Transport (DfT) in August but Virgin Rail, a joint venture between Virgin and Stagecoach, is pursuing a challenge against the government department.

FirstGroup, which runs First Great Western, TransPennine Express, First Capital Connect and Scotrail services, insisted the process had been “rigorous, detailed and fair” and was preparing to commence the handover on December 9.

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The Aberdeen-based group, which is also the UK’s biggest bus operator, said its rail division should report an 8.1 per cent rise in like-for-like passenger revenues in the six months to September 30, down from the 8.4 per cent growth experienced in the year to March.

The Government has delayed the final signing of the West Coast franchise contract due to the Virgin legal challenge.

Sir Richard said the DfT did not follow its own rules in choosing FirstGroup rather than Virgin to run the new 13-year franchise and described the bidding process as “insane”.

If the December takeover date is postponed, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has said there are procedures under which the DfT can operate the line in the public sector.

FirstGroup said its focus was “to ensure a smooth transition with continuity for staff and passengers alike and to deliver the many benefits and improvements we are offering without delay or disruption”.