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FirstGroup boss: we'll deliver what we pledge on West Coast.

Byline: JONATHAN WALKER

FirstGroup's rail boss, who is set to take over services on the West Coast Main Line following a high-profile battle with Sir Richard Branson, has pledged to deliver a much better service than Virgin.

Richard Parry, interim managing director of the new operator which will provide services between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, in an exclusive interview with the Birmingham Post, said customers would enjoy refurbished trains, new services and better catering.

He pledged: "We are very confident that we have a good business plan for improvements across the service. Our plan can be delivered right through to 2026."

And he urged Virgin to work with the new operator, owned by transport giant FirstGroup, to ensure a smooth transition.

Mr Parry said: "We have been surprised at the level of the campaign that has been mobilised against the decision."

It follows a bitter row over the Government's decision to strip Virgin Trains of its franchise operating inter-city services on the West Coast Main Line, including many which stop at Birmingham's New Street station.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening is backing a controversial deal handing services to FirstGroup, despite opposition from some MPs, a petition signed by more than 150,000 people and complaints by Virgin boss Sir Richard, who urged the Prime Minister to "intervene to try to get some sense into the Department for Transport" A new 13-year West Coast franchise was won by FirstGroup after it offered a bid worth around pounds 10 billion to operate the line - more than Virgin, which offered a bid worth around pounds 8.6 billion. Reacting angrily to the decision, Sir Richard claimed that FirstGroup would find it impossible to pay that much and still provide a good service to passengers.

He branded the decision "insane" and launched a legal challenge designed to delay the final contract signing.

The Commons Transport Committee has also urged the Department for Transport to delay signing the contracts until after it had a chance to quiz Ministers about the decision, while a petition signed by more than 150,000 people, including double Olympic champion Mo Farah, Apprentice star Lord Sugar and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, called for a rethink.

And Labour urged Mrs Greening not to sign off the contract until MPs have been able to scrutinise it in detail.

But she insisted she would press ahead with the deal, saying her department had run a "very fair, robust and vigorous" contest, and FirstGroup, which already runs four other rail franchises across the UK, had submitted the best bid.

FirstGroup, which will begin operating services on December 9 and run the franchise until March 2026, has promised to invest pounds 350 million over the first five years, including introducing six new trains to the West Coast Main Line fleet which will be used to improve services from Birmingham to Scotland. This is on top of the 106 new carriages which Virgin was already in the process of adding to services. It is also promising to refurbish trains, create direct services from London to Shrewsbury and Telford, increase the frequency of trains stopping at Nuneaton, and provide a better catering service.

The company says it will cut standard anytime fares by 15 per cent on average, and provide a free WiFi service throughout trains - rather than charging customers in standard class, as Virgin does now - once the refurbishment of carriages is complete, although this could take up to three years.

Sir Mr Parry led FirstGroup's bid for the franchise and will be managing director of the new rail operator, which has not yet been named, when it is up and running.

He said: "This is a service that we will improve by listening to customers and engaging with stakeholders, including businesses in Birmingham and the West Midlands, and passengers."

FirstGroup's bid was based on a robust business case which had been tested by the Department for Transport, he said.

"Our response to some of the comments people have made is to point to the very rigorous process conducted by the Department for Transport.

"We did a lot of work to develop a very strong proposition. We are very confident that what we put forward is deliverable."

Mr Parry declined to respond directly to Virgin's comments, but pointed out that rail franchises changed hands regularly. He said: "In every other case, people have been willing to accept the outcome and make sure there is a transition to the new franchise which is smooth and in the interests customers.

"That is what we hope to see now. We have had two weeks of very noisy campaigning and we want now to concentrate on getting ourselves in good shape for December 9 when the franchise begins, working with Virgin and the Df T."

Richard Branson Virgin Trains staff would be transferring to the new operator and one of his aims was to ensure that the process was as easy as possible and that they felt welcomed, he said.

He admitted that some fares may rise, saying: "As with other train operators, you will see the overall package of fares rising with inflation over time."

But changes to the fare structure would mean the cost of a "walk on" ticket - a ticket which can be purchased immediately before travel instead of being booked in advance - would fall.

The business also planned to make it easier for passengers to purchase tickets electronically, including via mobile phones.

Mr Parry added: "I have already been in touch with business organisations in Birmingham and elsewhere and I hope to be out and about meeting people, offering reassurance and listening to them."

Virgin Trains has operated the franchise since 1997 and its contract expires on December 9. Other firms bidding for the franchise included Dutch-backed Abellio InterCity West Coast Limited and French rail operator SNCF.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "We are confident our process is robust and that the decision was absolutely the right one for tax payers and passengers. We expect to sign the contract soon."

Comment: Page 24 FirstGroup's WCML plan * Major refurbishment of Pendolino and Voyager interiors * Introduction of 11 new 125mph six-car electric trains for Birmingham to Scotland * Introduction of new direct services from London to Blackpool, Telford, Shrewsbury and Bolton * Improvement of connectivity with more stops at Nuneaton and Milton Keynes * Reliability and punctuality improvements to offer Public Performance Measure of more than 90 per cent from 85.9 per cent * Reduction of standard anytime fares by 15 per cent on average * Smart ticketing introduced across the network * Free upgraded high speed Wi-Fi, and enhanced mobile phone coverage * Enhanced catering service * New mobile phone and tablet apps * Station investment, including improvement to accessibility, security and passenger information Sir Richard Branson

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FirstGroup runs other rail franchises across the country and is promising to upgrade the West Coast Main Line
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 30, 2012
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