UK: A partnership of Virgin Group, Stagecoach, SNCF and Alstom has applied to the Office of Rail & Road for permission to operate open access trains between London and Liverpool from May 2021, which it says would be ‘the UK’s most advanced and customer-focused’ rail service.

The announcement on June 11 came two months after the Department for Transport disqualified the same partners from bidding for the West Coast Partnership contract to operate franchised services on the West Coast Main Line. These are currently provided by Virgin and Stagecoach under the Virgin Trains brand.

Virgin Trains is seeking paths for 24 open access services per day between London Euston and Liverpool Lime Street, calling at Lichfield, Tamworth, Nuneaton and Liverpool South Parkway.

No decision has been made on the rolling stock which would be used; the Alstom Pendolino trainsets which Virgin Trains currently operates on West Coast services could not be used, as they will transfer to the next franchisee.

Revenue from the service is estimated at around £50m/year. Every ticket ‘would be guaranteed to be at least 10% cheaper than equivalent tickets offered by rail competitors’, and would include a seat reservation; there would be full refunds for passengers who had to stand in the event of disruption. Onboard services would include free wi-fi, a film and TV entertainment service and at-seat on-demand catering.

‘Virgin Trains has led the UK rail industry for 22 years’, said Managing Director Phil Whittingham. ‘But we want to go further. These new services will allow us to take the customer experience on the UK’s railways to the next level and show the rest of the industry how it can be done.’