Branson rails at MPs over First Group win for West Coast line

FIRST Group chief executive Tim O’Toole yesterday hit back at Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains, telling MPs that his rival was “flat out wrong” to claim First could not achieve continued revenue growth on the West Coast Main Line.

“Contrary to Virgin’s depiction of their stewardship in recent years, since they’ve been in revenue support, they’ve had little incentive to grow revenue on this line,” O’Toole told the Transport Select Committee.

“We think the problem is that they don’t understand our model, because they haven’t seen it.”

Appearing at the same meeting, Branson maintained that the outcome of the bidding process – which saw First win the rights to run trains from London to Manchester and Glasgow – was “bad for the country, bad for passengers on the West Coast Main Line and bad for passengers on other franchises.”

He said the Department for Transport did not consider the deliverability of First’s offer when they selected a “preposterous” bid that promises higher cash payments.

Virgin Trains has requested a judicial review of the decision, which could throw the entire rail franchising system into a disarray. A judge is expected to decide soon whether the request will be granted.

But O’Toole said First would suffer irreparable damage if it failed to meet its promises: “I don’t think there is any chance of our handing back the keys. It would destroy our ability to run a rail business in this country.”