UK: On March 1 the Inter-City Railways consortium of Stagecoach Group (90%) and Virgin Holdings (10%) began operating inter-city services on the East Coast Main Line under the Virgin Trains East Coast brand. Stagecoach and Virgin had been awarded an eight-year franchise in November last year, committing to invest £140m and make premium payments of £3∙3bn to the Department for Transport.

Speaking at the official launch of the new franchise at London King’s Cross station on March 2, Transport Minister Claire Perry described the return of East Coast operations to the private sector as ‘a really fantastic deal for passengers and taxpayers alike’. Managing Director David Horne said that VTEC would be building on the ‘great work’ done by East Coast under public ownership.

As well as spending £21m over the first two years of the franchise to refurbish the existing rolling stock fleet, from 2018 VTEC is to introduce 65 Hitachi Class 800 and 801 trainsets procured by DfT under the Intercity Express Programme. By 2020 total fleet capacity is to be increased by 12 200 seats, enabling the introduction of additional services including new direct trains from London to Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Huddersfield as well as more services to Edinburgh, Leeds and Bradford.

Passengers should enjoy ‘faster, more reliable onboard wi-fi and better mobile phone connections’, while over £25m is to be invested by VTEC in stations including the provision of free wi-fi. A more flexible reservation system is to be introduced, ‘to better suit customers who make last-minute travel arrangements’, while VTEC promises improved onboard service that will be ‘personalised and highly visible’. New catering menus are to be devised by local chefs, and a trial of at-seat catering in standard class is to be undertaken later this year.