BETTER service, more trains, simpler fares – Scots transport giant FirstGroup has promised to overhaul long-distance train travel after winning the contract for key Scotland-to-London services.

The Aberdeen-based operator has clinched the deal for the West Coast Main Line franchise, which connects Edinburgh and Glasgow to the English capital.

It will operate the service as First Trentalia in a partnership with a division of Italy’s state rail firm, from this December until 2031.

FirstGroup will own 70% of the operation in what is the first such arrangement between the two.

The line was latterly run by Virgin Trains, a partnership between Perth’s Stagecoach and Virgin Group. However, it was barred from bidding to retain control due to a pensions row and the companies are now suing Westminster’s Department for Transport (DfT) over that decision.

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The West Coast Partnership deal also includes responsibility for running the first HS2 trains from 2026 and, under the terms agreed with the UK Government, travellers are promised almost 240 extra services every week from December 2022.

The changes will also see North Lanarkshire town Motherwell become a “major calling point”, while direct trains will also be provided between London and destinations like Llandudno in North Wales.

New trains are also set to begin service, with the existing Pendolino fleet refurbished at a cost of £117 million. First Trenitalia’s premium payments to the government have been set at £1.6 billion until the initial period ends in March 2026.

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UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the partnership and underlying contract will help put “passengers at the heart of the railways”, commenting: “This award is positive news for passengers, with more services, more direct connections and ambitious plans for a cleaner, greener railway, and also represents a decisive shift towards a new model for rail.”

Matthew Gregory, chief executive of FirstGroup, said the contract offers a “more appropriate balance of risks and rewards” for operators, compared with traditional franchises.

He went on: “The partnership strengthens and adds a fourth franchise to our UK rail portfolio. Following this award we will not therefore be seeking new franchising opportunities for the foreseeable future over and above our current negotiations with the DfT to extend GWR. Our focus remains on delivering sustainable shareholder value and we will actively manage our rail portfolio and its risk and reward profile accordingly.”

Mick Cash (pictured below), general secretary of rail union RMT, called the contract award “another political fix by a government whose privatised franchise model is collapsing around their ears”, claiming it is “doomed to failure”.

The National:

And Labour shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald branded the government’s trust in FirstGroup a “gross error of judgement.”

However, Paul Plummer, chief executive of industry body the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Virgin-Stagecoach have brought significant benefits to passengers on the West Coast route including nearly tripling the number of trains between London and Manchester. We have no doubt that First Trenitalia will build on that record.”

Meanwhile, ScotRail season tickets and anytime singles and returns, will rise by 2.8% from January 2, in accordance with July's Retail Price Index (RPI). Regulated off-peak fares are capped at 1% below RPI and so will go up by 1.8%.

ScotRail said the change was down to the Scottish Government, which said cutting or freezing fares would hit the public purse. A spokeswoman added: “We have capped increases where we have influence, making fares 20% cheaper on average than in the rest of Great Britain.”