Virgin plots rail return with proposal to run West Coast routes

<span>Virgin Trains operated on the UK rail network for more than two decades until its contract expired in 2019.</span><span>Photograph: Matthew Clarke/Alamy</span>
Virgin Trains operated on the UK rail network for more than two decades until its contract expired in 2019.Photograph: Matthew Clarke/Alamy

Richard Branson’s Virgin Group hopes to make a comeback on Britain’s railways – with plans for up to four new services on the West Coast main line it used to run.

Virgin has submitted proposals to operate separate train services between London Euston and Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow Central respectively, on an open access basis.

In a direct challenge to Avanti West Coast – run by Virgin’s old rival FirstGroup – two of the services would rely on train paths, or timetable slots, whose rights are now held by Avanti. The Manchester trains would also go to Rochdale, a destination that FirstGroup itself hopes to serve with its Lumo brand.

Related: Why Labour leapt on board with private open access train providers

Applications for more open access rail services, such as Lumo or Grand Central, have been encouraged by government in the name of competition with the leading line operators. They remain controversial with rail industry leaders who see them as inefficient, while the RMT union regards them as “parasitic”.

A spokesperson for the Virgin Group said it had lodged applications with the Office of Rail and Road, which were “just the first step towards exploring what might be possible”. They added: “In the 20 years Virgin Trains operated on the West Coast, they reduced journey times considerably, tripled services on key routes and provided an exceptional customer experience while increasing passenger numbers from 8 million to 42 million per year.

“We’re confident customers would welcome Virgin Trains back, providing them with much-needed choice and competition.”

The direct challenge to the troubled Avanti West Coast service could rekindle an old feud with FirstGroup, which briefly won the rights to take over the lucrative London-Manchester-Glasgow line from Virgin Trains in 2012. Branson and partner Stagecoach launched legal action to see the decision overturned, but were barred from bidding again in 2019, when FirstGroup finally took charge.