Great North Western Railways Company, owned by Germany's Deutsche Bahn, has secured agreement from Network Rail to operate services on the West Coast Main Line in competition with Virgin.
A company owned by Germany’s state railway has moved a step closer to launching rival train services on Britain's West Coast Main Line, between London and Manchester, which would potentially give Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains a run for its money.
Network Rail has given the go-ahead to the Great North Western Railway Company (GNWR) to run six return trains a day along the West Coast line between London and Blackpool and a further six trains from London to Huddersfield, via Manchester.
GNWR is part of Arriva, the UK rail operator owned by Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, and has been campaigning to shake up competition on one of Britain’s key rail arteries since 2011.
The company still needs approval from the rail regulator but is hopeful it can start rival services to Blackpool from early 2017, and to Manchester and Huddersfield in 2018.
Although Virgin Trains, which currently holds the Government contract to run West Coast Main Line services, does not currently go as far as Blackpool and Huddersfield, passengers travelling between London, Manchester and Preston would have a choice of two operators under the plans.
GNWR is hoping to exploit the UK's “open access” mechanism, which allows operators to introduce rival services on a line if they are able to secure agreement from both Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation.
Ian Yeowart, managing director of GNWR, said: “It has taken a significant amount of work since our initial application in 2011 to get to this point where Network Rail has agreed to the sale of access rights.”
Virgin Trains is expected to continue operating West Coast rail services until March 2017, when the Government will sign a new long-term contract with an operator following a competitive tender process.
A spokesman for Virgin Trains insisted the group welcomed competition. He pointed out that Virgin runs 32 trains a day in both directions between London and Preston and 48 from the capital to Manchester.
Arriva is an old hand at exploiting the open access mechanism; it already operates Grand Central services on the East Coast Main Line from London King’s Cross to Bradford and Sunderland. The group is also pressing Network Rail to allow it to run services between London and Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, almost £33bn of debt will be transferred on to the Government’s balance sheet in September after Network Rail’s borrowings rose by almost 9pc in the last financial year. Network Rail will be reclassified as a government body, bumping up public sector net debt.