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Fresh hope for direct train services from London to Blackpool and Shrewsbury

Press Release   •   Aug 08, 2013 09:48 BST

Virgin Trains is to submit a fresh application to operate direct train services connecting London to Blackpool and Shrewsbury.

The train operator believes that a commitment to improve reliability on the West Coast Main Line by Network Rail will ensure that there are no further obstacles to providing the new services from next May – six months later than was originally proposed.

A previous application that would have seen two daily services in each direction up and running from this December was refused by Network Rail, which operates Britain’s track and signals, on the grounds that it would have a negative impact on train performance. That view that was upheld by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) on 31 July following an appeal by Virgin Trains.

Phil Bearpark, Virgin Trains’ Production Director, said that although disappointed with the decisions by Network Rail and the ORR he remained committed to providing the direct train services. “The May 2014 timetable changes are 10 months away and we expect Network Rail to significantly improve performance by then,” he said.

“The people of Blackpool and Shrewsbury have been absolutely clear about their desire to have a direct train link with London, an ambition we fully support and are working very hard to achieve.

“We have continued to work with Network Rail to ensure that they improve performance. It is now down to them to ensure that they honour their commitments on this and for the ORR to hold them to account.”

In its decision on Virgin Trains’ track application on 31 July, the ORR’s Chief Executive, Richard Price, said he wanted the question of new services to Blackpool and Shrewsbury to be “looked at again as soon as possible” once performance improvements were made by Network Rail.

The regulator had previously found Network Rail to be in breach of its network licence due to poor performance and threatened to impose a fine of £72m if this is not addressed by the end of the current financial year, ending in March 2014.

Network Rail is investing nearly £40m in a series of projects aimed improving the reliability of infrastructure and train punctuality on the West Coast Main Line, Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic rail route. The investment followed a secondment last year to Network Rail by Chris Gibb, Virgin Trains’ Chief Operating Officer, aimed at addressing performance problems.

The ORR’s decision on Virgin Trains' track access application is here:

The ORR’s ruling that Network Rail is in breach of its licence condition due to poor performance is here:

Network Rail’s commitment to improve performance on the West Coast Main Line is here:

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Virgin Trains has revolutionised rail travel by creating a high speed, high frequency service that has cut journey times and made rail journeys more comfortable. It has operated the West Coast passenger train franchise since 1997, serving key UK cities including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow.

Virgin Trains is the brand name of Virgin Rail Group (VRG), which is owned 51 percent by Virgin Group and 49 percent by Stagecoach. The Department for Transport (DfT) has awarded VRG a franchise contract, which started on 9 December 2012 and will run for up to 23 months. The DfT announced on 26 March 2013 a programme for letting future franchises, with the long-term West Coast franchise expected to start in April 2017.

Virgin Trains has been recognised in numerous awards. In September 2012 Business Traveller magazine readers voted the company the Best UK Domestic Rail Operator for the sixth year running. In 2011 the company was named Best Rail Operator in the Group Leisure Awards (which it also won in 2009 and 2010). In 2011 Virgin Trains won the British Quality Foundation's Achievement Award for Customer Satisfaction.

Customers consistently rate the company the top long-distance rail franchise operator, as measured by the National Passenger Survey (NPS) run by industry watchdog Passenger Focus. In the most recent NPS (Spring 2013) overall satisfaction was 92%, equalling our best ever score from the previous survey (Autumn 2012).

Virgin Trains first achieved Investors In People accreditation in 2007 and this was renewed in 2010; the IIP Gold award was achieved in 2011. In May 2013 Virgin Trains renewed it accreditation against the criteria of the European Foundation for Quality Management's (EFQM) Excellence Model, which it originally achieved in May 2011 The company’s Learning and Development team won a National Training Awards 2011 West Midlands award for its Coaching Culture programme.

For more information about Virgin Trains visit the Virgin Trains' website  or the Media Room website