Virgin Trains warns promised two-hourly Harrogate-London service is in doubt

Richard Branson's Virgin has promised more trains to London (s)
Richard Branson's Virgin has promised more trains to London (s)

Revolutionary promises to introduce 14 trains a day between London and Harrogate from 2019 could be at risk with four competing companies battling for use of the line.

In November 2014, Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) were awarded the East Coast Main Line franchise and promised a new two-hour direct service to London from Harrogate.

Richard Branson's Virgin has promised more trains to London (s)

Richard Branson's Virgin has promised more trains to London (s)

In order to fulfil their promise, VTEC applied to the Office of Rail & Road (ORR) for paths on the line to be allocated to them.

However, VTEC now face a battle to secure the sufficient paths after the ORR revealed that three other ‘open access’ companies have also applied for use of the line.

Operating on a purely commercial basis, ‘open access’ operators can still apply for track access rights and train paths where franchises are not already providing services.

Virgin has warned that if the competing ‘open access’ operators were awarded crucial space on the line, it would jeopardise their promise of more London trains.

A Virgin Trains spokesman said: “Our franchise is bringing investment of £140m and major improvements to customers’ experience, including a £21m upgrade to the existing train fleet which is this year seeing more than 24,000 seats being replaced on-board out trains.

“We also plan to introduce hundreds of extra services per week, make millions more seats available and, create many faster journey times and better connectivity across the UK.

“This includes serving new or emerging markets such as Harrogate, where we plan to introduce a two hourly daily return service to London.

“We do not believe the other open access proposals could be delivered alongside our significant timetable enhancements and the benefits this will bring to communities, businesses and taxpayers.”

The ORR will now decide whether to allocate the paths to VTEC or to the competing bidders, two of which are from Alliance Rail Holdings and one from FirstGroup.

A decision is expected ‘later this year’ and the department said they will consider applications that meet criteria and ‘bring real benefits to customers’.

An ORR spokesperson said: “We are looking at the benefits new services will bring to passengers, the impact on public funds, and whether they make best use of the limited capacity on the route.”

The ORR confirmed that three of the applications would include proposals for long distance high speed trains between London and Edinburgh.

However, all four would rely on capacity at the very busy southern end of the line and Harrogate Chamber of Commerce have stressed VTEC must have ‘sufficient paths’.

In 2014, Brian Dunsby, chamber chair, welcomed VTEC’s promise of seven trains a day between Leeds and Harrogate after leading a five-year campaign to upgrade Harrogate rail services.

Mr Dunsby has now written to the ORR with his fears the ‘open access’ operators will ‘cherry pick’ the most lucrative services at the expense of VTEC’s proposals.

He said: “This would mean VTEC is unable to fulfil its plans and implement the services which would so significantly benefit our town.

“Refusing VTEC access to the paths required is going back on the agreement made at the start of the franchise.

“Surely Virgin must be given a fair chance to operate the new trains on the routes to which they were committed by the Department for Transport and Virgin’s successful bid?

“The promised two-hourly Harrogate service to and from the capital – widely accepted as a vital component of our success as a business, conference and tourism destination – would never materialise.”