Virgin launches flights on West Coast rail route

VIRGIN Atlantic will today announce plans to operate flights between London and Manchester, just days after its sister firm Virgin Trains lost the right to run rail services between the two cities.

Richard Branson’s airline will start flying between Heathrow and Manchester airport in March 2013 and says this is the first step in building a domestic network. Both companies said the timing of the announcement was entirely coincidental.

“Operating a London to Manchester route will provide an invaluable feed to our existing long haul network for both business and leisure passengers,” said Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive Steve Ridgway.

Last week Virgin Trains controversially lost out to First Group in the bidding for a new West Coast rail franchise. First has promised the government substantially higher payments but Virgin claims its rival’s sums do not add up and necessary cutbacks will result in a lower standard of service.

Last night a spokesman for Virgin Trains told City A.M. that the firm was not giving up the fight to hold onto the rail franchise:  “We are keeping our options open, including judicial review.” The company has until 28 August to launch a legal challenge.

The rail operator has also been publicising an independent online petition that urges the government to reconsider the decision to hand the franchise to First. It has already attracted more than 14,000 signatures.

The House of Commons’ public accounts committee and transport select committee are expected to examine the rail deal when parliament returns in September.