FirstGroup's north Wales-London rail improvement pledge

Rail operator FirstGroup says it is "firmly committed" to improving services between north Wales and London after winning the West Coast Mainline franchise from Virgin Rail.

The company, under the name First West Coast Limited, will take over from 9 December and is due to to operate the service until 2026.

It wants to extend services to Bangor from Chester and use longer trains.

Additional evening services will also be provided from 2016.

The service between Wrexham and Euston will also be retained, with one train a day in each direction.

FirstGroup already operates a number of rail routes, including Great Western - which serves south Wales - ScotRail and Capital Connect.

The West Coast Mainline route serves 31m passengers travelling between London, the west Midlands, north west England, north Wales and the central belt of Scotland.

Rail analyst Christian Wolmar gave the news a cautious welcome.

"FirstGroup will be familiar to many as it runs First Great Western, where it has had something of a patchy record but has improved greatly of late," he said.

"There was a fuss a few years ago with them taking off some of the trains and causing overcrowding particularly in the Bristol Severn Tunnel area, but they have in recent years improved their performance.

"They do operate several other franchises around the country."

But Louise Courtnage, who lives on the Llyn Peninsula and has used the line for the last seven years, was disappointed.

'Casts uncertainty'

"I think it's a case of if it ain't broke, don't fix it," she told BBC Radio Wales.

"I know this is how the system goes nowadays, but for the customer I don't think it's a good thing at all.

"Virgin is a respected name and I think the company taking over is less familiar to people.

"I think it casts uncertainty over the whole thing. It's quite worrying to hear bids for franchises that have been successful financially have actually failed to deliver the product."

FirstGroup said it would "offer substantial improvements in the quality and frequency of services".

But there are concerns that FirstGroup may have bid too much for the franchise.

Mr Wolmar added: "On the East Coast Mainline, it's happened twice, first with Sea Containers [collapsing] and then National Express and those were both rather optimistic bids.

"First Group reckons this is not going to happen to them, that they can deliver this level of growth.

"Given that we are in a recession, the railways have been very buoyant, but it's very dependent on oil prices pushing people towards using the rail line rather than their cars.

"So there's a lot of unknowns out there."

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Rail has operated the West Coast Mainline franchise since 1997 after the privatisation of UK railways.

He said Virgin Rail's bid had been a realistic one and it was "very disappointing news" to have lost the franchise.

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