Virgin Group aims to return back to the railways

Virgin Group has started the process towards bringing Virgin Trains back to the railways, applying to the Office of Rail and Road for four Open Access rail paths.

“Virgin has submitted an application to the Office of Rail and Road for four Open Access rail paths. Whilst this application is just the first step towards bringing Virgin back to the rail network, we think Open Access is the way forward. Open Access increases consumer choice and competition both of which Virgin has always supported,” said Josh Bayliss, CEO of the Virgin Group.

Virgin Trains operated for over 20 years on the West Coast

Virgin’s trains have run on the London to Glasgow line for 22 years but its joint venture with Stagecoach expired on 7 December 2019.

At the time, the Department for Transport (DfT)  had barred Stagecoach from bidding for three new franchises – including West Coast – in a row over rail staff pensions.

“I received the news this morning that the Department for Transport has decided to disqualify our bid for the West Coast Partnership,” Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, wrote in 2019 in a blog on the Virgin website. “This means that Virgin Trains could be gone from the UK in November.” Which it did.

Under this new type of license, Virgin would not receive any state subsidies and assumes the risk of running a rail service itself. In contrast, a franchised operator holds a contract with the government to run the route.

It also means that Virgin would be competing with Avanti West Coast, the train company it lost the contract to in 2019.

Avanti West Coast has its own problems

In March 2024, the Board of Transport for the North (TfN) officially passed a motion to write to the Secretary of State asking for the Avanti West Coast to be taken off the key West Coast Main Line route between London Euston and Scotland “at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The main issue TfN has with Avanti West Coast is its high rate of cancellations.

According to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) Avanti West Coast has cancelled more than 9% of its services in the first three months.

ORR reports that Avanti West Coast still is the operator with the highest official cancellations score with 6.6%. For example, the latest national adjusted cancellations score sits at 3.5%.

The routes applied for by Virgin – running in both directions

  • London Euston
  • Nuneaton
  • Stoke on Trent
  • Stockport
  • Manchester Piccadilly

Then either:

  • Manchester Victoria
  • Rochdale (end point)


  • Bolton
  • Horwich
  • Chorley
  • Preston (end point)

  • London Euston
  • Tamworth
  • Lichfield Trent Valley
  • Runcorn
  • Liverpool South Parkway
  • Liverpool Lime Street

  • London Euston
  • Coventry
  • Birmingham International
  • Birmingham New Street

  • London Euston
  • Golborne
  • Preston
  • Carlisle
  • Motherwell
  • Lockerbie
  • Glasgow Central

Eurostar rumors

At the start of this year, rumors emerged that Branson is in talks with Getlink, the manager of the Eurotunnel infrastructure.

British rail sources said Virgin would have a good chance of succeeding in his project to compete with Eurostar, given his experience in passenger rail from 1997 to 2019 in the U.K. Virgin group officials, however, have gone silent and refused to comment on what they called “speculation.” But neither have they denied the information.

For their part, Getlink officials also declined to comment, but said they would “welcome an increase in traffic through the Channel Tunnel, whether that comes from the incumbent operator, Eurostar, or from new entrants to the market”.

After Virgin stopped operating trains in 2019, the company remained tied to the railway sector by providing train ticketing services with its subsidiary, Virgin Trains Ticketing.

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