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Virgin Rail Group[1] was formed by the Virgin Group to bid for rail franchises in the United Kingdom during the privatisation of British Rail in the late 1990s.

Virgin Rail Group
Limited company
FounderRichard Branson
Area served
United Kingdom
OwnerVirgin Group (51%)
Stagecoach (49%)
SubsidiariesVirgin CrossCountry (1997-2007)
Virgin Trains West Coast (1997-2019)

United Kingdom operationsEdit


Virgin bid for a number of franchises, including Gatwick Express, InterCity CrossCountry and InterCity West Coast.[2] It was successful in winning the latter two, and Virgin CrossCountry and Virgin West Coast began operations in January and March 1997 respectively.[3][4] Both franchises were scheduled to run for 15 years.

In October 1998, Virgin Group sold 49% of the shares in Virgin Rail Group to Stagecoach.[5]

21st centuryEdit

In March 2000, Virgin was shortlisted to bid for the InterCity East Coast franchise.[6][7] In January 2002 the Strategic Rail Authority scrapped the refranchising process and awarded a two-year extension to GNER.[8]

In the wake of the collapse of Railtrack and the inability of Network Rail to deliver on the 140 mph (225 km/h) West Coast Main Line upgrade, both the Virgin CrossCountry and Virgin West Coast franchises were suspended in favour of management contracts in July 2002.[9][10][11] While the terms of the West Coast franchise were renegotiated, agreement could not be reached on CrossCountry and it was retendered in 2007.

Virgin was again shortlisted to bid for the InterCity East Coast franchise in 2004, but was not successful; the franchise was won by Sea Containers, parent company of then train operator Great North Eastern Railway.[12] Virgin was shortlisted for the New CrossCountry franchise by the Department for Transport (DfT) in September 2006, but was not successful and the Virgin CrossCountry franchise transferred to Arriva in November 2007.[13][14]

After Sea Containers was stripped of the East Coast franchise due to poor financial management, Virgin was again shortlisted for the InterCity East Coast franchise in February 2007, but was not successful, as the franchise was won by National Express.[15] This bid had a 10% shareholding by the incumbent, Sea Containers.

Virgin was awarded a contract by the DfT in July 2008 to manage the introduction of 106 extra Class 390 Pendolino carriages.[16]

Virgin was shortlisted for the InterCity West Coast franchise by the DfT in March 2011.[17] In August 2012, the Department awarded FirstGroup the new franchise.[18] Virgin felt that the methodology used to award the franchise was flawed, and Richard Branson said it was unlikely Virgin would bid for any future franchises.[19][20] When the DfT did not respond to Virgin's concerns, it launched proceedings for a judicial review.[21] While preparing its case for the judicial review, the government discovered significant technical flaws in the way the franchise process had been conducted, and cancelled the competition, vindicating Virgin's protests.[22]

In December 2012, Virgin was awarded a 23-month management contract to run the West Coast franchise until November 2014;[23] the contract was extended in stages until March 2020.[24]

in May 2013 there was a controversy regarding new uniforms, with claims that the blouses were too revealing and potentially exposed dark bras to the public. Virgin Rail Group responded to this by offering a voucher worth £20 to allow employees to purchase a top to wear underneath the new blouses.[25]

In November 2016, the government announced that the InterCity West Coast franchise would be replaced by a new franchise named the West Coast Partnership, which will include operating High Speed 2 (HS2). Services are planned to begin on the first phase of HS2 in 2026.[26] The DfT requires that the new operator have experience in operating high speed trains (250 mph) and infrastructure.[27][28] To satisfy this requirement, Stagecoach (50%) and Virgin (20%) will bid in a joint venture with SNCF (30%).[29][30] In April 2019 Stagecoach revealed that it had been disqualified from the franchises it was bidding for, including the West Coast Partnership, thus Virgin Trains will cease in March 2020.[31]

Other Virgin rail operationsEdit

In 1998 Virgin Rail, as part of the Capital Rail consortium, was shortlisted for an Australian high-speed rail service from Sydney to Canberra.[32]

In March 2015, Virgin Trains East Coast commenced operating the InterCity East Coast franchise; the company was a joint venture between Stagecoach (90%) and Virgin Group (10%).[33][34] Due to the line performing below VTEC's expectations, it was announced in May 2018 that the contract would be terminated early by the government. VTEC ceased operating on 23 June 2018 and operations passed to a government-owned operator, London North Eastern Railway.[35]

In November 2018, it was announced that the Virgin Group would be acquiring a shareholding in Brightline to form Virgin Trains USA in 2019.[36]

In June 2019, Virgin lodged an application to the Office of Rail and Road for an open access service from London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street calling at Nuneaton, Tamworth, Lichfield Trent Valley, Liverpool South Parkway and Liverpool Lime Street to rival the future West Coast Partnership franchisee from May 2021.[37]


  1. ^ Companies House extract company no 03282548 Virgin Rail Group Limited
  2. ^ "National Express wins Gatwick rail franchise" The Independent 4 April 1996
  3. ^ "Virgin to run CrossCountry trains" The Independent 14 November 1996
  4. ^ "Virgin pledges tilt trains for West Coast" The Independent 31 January 1997
  5. ^ "Virgin passengers get 'better deal'" BBC News 7 October 1998
  6. ^ "Six Companies Shortlisted for First Franchise Replacement Round" Shadow Strategic Rail Authority 14 March 2000
  7. ^ "Virgin's 200 mph East Coast Vision" BBC News 6 March 2000
  8. ^ "High-speed GNER trains scrapped" BBC News 16 January 2002
  9. ^ Virgin Rail Group Interim Agreement House of Commons Select Committee on Transport
  10. ^ "CrossCountry could be carved up as SRA rejects Virgin bid". Rail Magazine issue 494 18 August 2004 page 6
  11. ^ "CrossCountry network could be axed, fears Virgin" The Railway Magazine issue 1242 October 2004 page 4
  12. ^ "GNER wins second franchise term" Railway Gazette International 1 May 2005
  13. ^ "New Cross Country Franchise Specification Issued" Virgin Trains 31 October 2006
  14. ^ "Department for Transport announces winner of New Cross Country franchise" Department for Transport 10 July 2007
  15. ^ "Four in East Coast rail shortlist" BBC News 20 February 2007
  16. ^ "Virgin Rail Group welcomes decision on longer Pendolino trains" Virgin Trains 31 July 2008
  17. ^ "Shortlisted Bidders for Greater Anglia and InterCity West Coast Franchises" Archived 6 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine Department for Transport 24 March 2011
  18. ^ "New operator for West Coast passengers" Department for Transport 15 August 2012
  19. ^ "Richard Branson attacks Government 'insanity' after Virgin loses West Coast contract" The Daily Telegraph 15 August 2012
  20. ^ "Virgin Trains loses West Coast Mainline franchise" BBC News 15 August 2012
  21. ^ "Virgin Trains takes West Coast Main Line court action" BBC News 28 August 2012
  22. ^ "West Coast Main Line franchise competition cancelled" Department for Transport 3 October 2012
  23. ^ Two-year extension for Virgin Rail after West Coast chaos The Daily Telegraph 5 December 2012
  24. ^ "Virgin Rail Group West Coast rail franchise". RNS - London Stock Exchange. 21 December 2018. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  25. ^ "Bra wars: Virgin Trains in row over see-through uniforms". AOL Travel UK. 8 May 2013. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
  26. ^ New West Coast rail franchise to run HS2 services BBC News 4 November 2016
  27. ^ Wanted: Superfast mover to partner Virgin and Stagecoach for HS2 The Times 4 March 2017
  28. ^ RENFE poised to join Virgin's HS2 franchise bid Railway Gazette International 12 March 2017
  29. ^ Stagecoach and Virgin to join forces with SNCF for West Coast Partnership Bid Stagecoach 25 July 2017
  30. ^ Stagecoach and SNCF lead Virgin-branded bid for HS2 operations Railway Gazette International 25 July 2017
  31. ^ Virgin Trains to disappear in less than a year due to pensions row The Independent 10 April 2019
  32. ^ "Riding the Big Ticket" Railway Digest August 1998. p 18.
  33. ^ More seats, more services and new trains for East Coast passengers Department for Transport 27 November 2014
  34. ^ Stagecoach and Virgin win East Coast mainline rail franchise BBC News 27 November 2014
  35. ^ "East Coast train line to be put into public control". BBC News. 12 February 2018. Retrieved 16 May 2018.
  36. ^ Branson, Richard (16 November 2018). "Introducing Virgin Trains USA". Virgin. Retrieved 16 November 2018.
  37. ^ Virgin Trains plans rival London-Liverpool services after franchise loss 11 June 2019

External linksEdit