Avanti, the new West Coast train that replaces Virgin

Artist impression of Pendolinos class 390 (photo Avanti)

As is known, Avanti West Coast, a joint venture of FirstGroup (70%) and the Italian rail operator, Trenitalia (30%), will take the lead of the West Coast Partnership on December 8, with a franchise of one a new type which will allow the new operator to operate passenger rail services between London, the Midlands, North West, Scotland and North Wales. FirstGroup and Trenitalia are also preparing for the introduction of high-speed trains on the HS2.

Virgin, with partner Stagecoach, had been disqualified from bidding after a row over pensions liabilities and is still pursuing legal action.

There are however good news for the old ones: the current management of Virgin Trains will be totally transferred to the new operator. FirstGroup and Trenitalia stated that the current Virgin Trains management team would be transferred to the new West Coast Intercity Division, under the management of Phil Whittingham, who is the current managing director of Virgin Trains since 2013, and who will now become the managing director of the InterCity West Coast division. Mr. Whittingham joined Virgin Trains in 1999 as an accountant and was appointed CFO in 2007 before becoming CEO in 2013. Other Virgin executives are also moving to the new Avanti West Coast management.

For its part, First Group also announced that its director, Caroline Donaldson, who designed the bid for the West Coast Partnership, would oversee the preparations for the operation of trains on the HS2 high-speed line, for which First has also been appointed. Steve Montgomery, CEO of First Rail, justifies these choices: « Phil and Caroline bring great experience, insight and drive to deliver the significant improvements we’re committed to while also establishing the plans and initiatives which will form the bedrock of future high speed rail services. »

Talking to Rail Business UK, Montgomery said « Virgin Trains has ‘good staff who are very passionate about the customers; we want to build on that and deliver exceptional as standard. The team that are there can bring that for us. Avanti West Coast is important to us, we can build the image and take over from an iconic image that is there now »

Then we can ask what is still the interest of franchising if it is only to change operator while maintaining the same level of service. But that’s more subtle than that …

(photo Avanti)

New branding
First Trenitalia has unveiled the new branding for its forthcoming West Coast rail franchise, with the service set to operate under the Avanti West Coast name from next month. The logo encompasses an orange triangle, which « symbolizes the three geographic points of the 400-mile long West Coast Main Line that services cities and towns across England, North Wales and Scotland ». Trenitalia’s UK managing director, Ernesto Sicilia, said: « Avanti West Coast is a strong, progressive and dynamic brand that reflects our commitment to providing our customers with an exceptional service. ». We hope that the new operator will not have the same difficulties as the recent Caledonian Sleeper and their CAF sleeping-cars …

The West Coast Partnership will operate inter-city services between London Euston and the Midlands, North West England, Scotland and North Wales. An additional 263 weekly train services would be introduced by 2022, as well as the addition of new routes, and destinations such as Walsall, Gobowen and Llandudno now benefiting from direct services to and from London Euston. On December 8, passengers will be compensated for delayed trips of 15 minutes or more, compared to 30 minutes minimum today. Fares and ticket types will be simplified with the introduction of mobile products and smart cards. The stations will be upgraded with refreshed waiting rooms, more parking and improved accessibility.

But this franchise also includes a second phase, which would cover the first three to five years of operation of the initial phase of the new high-speed line London to Birmingham (HS2), which should open in principle in 2026. Avanti West Coast will have not only to choose new rolling stock, but also reorganize the train service on the current line. So Trenitalia beneficiates today a double experience at high speed railway, after its recent appointment in Spain alongside ILSA (Air Nostrum).

(photo Avanti)

New trains
A new fleet of trains as well as the complete renovation of the existing fleet of Pendolino class 390 are scheduled. A fleet of 23 new trainsets will be introduced, and industry observators expect Hitachi Rail to be designated to supply 10 electric trainsets and 13 dual-mode trainsets that would replace the existing Bombardier Voyager fleet by 2022. These trains should all have significantly improved on-board service with free Wi-Fi, power outlets, 25,000 new seats and a fully revised onboard catering.

A strong question concerns the famous British franchise system, which would be revised. The financial model of the West Coast Partnership should be more stable. « We’ve all learned lessons over the last number of years, the important thing here is that we recognise that the economy has changed in a way that we haven’t seen before, we’ve built that into this franchise and there is no doubt that we’ve been far more cautious in our approach to this », explains Montgomery. « This was not all about a money bid, this was about innovation and quality, and proposals for the HS2 shadow operator.

For passengers, on a day-to-day basis, things won’t change straight away, other than some new signs, new vinyl decals on trains and different staff uniforms. But as time moves on, Avanti West Coast branding will become more visible. But with four years to make changes, it will be interesting to watch things go forward.

The last Virgin service in the United Kingdom will leave London Euston on Saturday, December 7th at 9:42 pm to reach Wolverhampton at 11:47 pm. End of story for Richard Branson. At least temporarily, he would have said …