Virgin Trains set to take over east coast franchise, sparking union protests

East Coast will return into private hands tomorrow (Sunday, March 1).
East Coast will return into private hands tomorrow (Sunday, March 1).

The franchise for the reprivatised east coast main line will come under the new banner of Virgin Trains East Coast from tomorrow (Sunday).

But rail union RMT has organised a series of protests along the line today to mark the final day of its operation in the public sector.

The new company running the London-Edinburgh trains will be Inter City Railways, a joint venture 90 per cent-owned by Stagecoach. Sir Richard Branson retains a 10 per cent stake.

The Department for Transport said the franchise award would lead to 23 new services from London and more daily services on the route; a 50 per cent increase in seat capacity; and 65 new Intercity Express trains brought into service from 2018, cutting journey times from London to Edinburgh by 13 minutes.

The premium being paid to the government totals £3.3billion over eight years, although Stagecoach claims it is £2.3billion in real terms at 2014 prices.

East Coast has been a focus for controversy over rail franchising since the state-owned company that had been successfully running the line since 2009 was forced to relinquish control.

Directly Operated Railways (DOR) stepped in to rescue the London-to-Edinburgh route from National Express, which could not deliver the payments it had promised in its contract.

RMT claims that since 2009, East Coast has returned over £1billion to the Treasury – paying cash back to the taxpayer while the private companies line their pockets with subsidies – and has had record high customer satisfaction ratings.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “Six years ago the East Coast Main Line collapsed into chaos when National Express threw the keys back because they couldn’t extract enough profit. That followed an earlier spectacular private sector failure on the line when Sea Containers went bust.

“It was left to the public sector to not only rescue this vital north/south rail link from total meltdown but to turn around its performance and to start handing hundreds of millions of pounds back to the taxpayer in contrast to the rip-off private companies.

“This weekend, in an act of gross national betrayal of the British people that will cost us dear. The route is being handed over to Virgin/Stagecoach to be run again solely in the interests of private profit, taking a third gamble after the two previous corporate failures.

“This re-privatisation is based on pure, hard-right, Thatcherite ideology and is an act of industrial vandalism that will smash apart Britain’s most successful rail company for just one reason – it is publicly owned.

“On Saturday RMT will mark this latest scandal on Britain’s privatised railways and the union will renew the fight to return the entire network to public ownership – a policy supported by 70 per cent of the British people.”

All of the trains will be branded Virgin, with the recognisable red and grey colours. Over £21m will be spent in the first two years to improve reliability and improve the interior of the trains, with refurbished toilets, new carpets and seat covers and clearer on-train signage.

There will be a rebrand of the existing East Coast website and online booking process.

A new passenger’s charter will also be published and there will also be changes to the Loyalty Scheme offer.