Virgin Trains has recorded the highest passenger satisfaction rating of any franchised train operator in Britain, just months before it is set to lose control of the West Coast route.
More than nine out of 10 travellers said they were satisfied with their journeys when travelling with the firm, according to a survey of more than 30,000 passengers by watchdog Transport Focus.
Punctuality, value for money, toilet facilities and response to delays were among the categories which the train company was rated several percentage points higher than the average for all long-distance operators.
Services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) have been run by Virgin Trains – owned by Virgin Group (51%) and Stagecoach (49%) – since 1997.
But the firm is due to stop operating trains in March 2020 after its bid for the next franchise on the route was disqualified by the Department for Transport (DfT) in a row over pensions.
A Virgin Trains spokesman said: “This result shows what Virgin Trains brings to the industry. We have a relentless focus on customer service and never stop innovating, with developments such as free wi-fi for all, the removal of the Friday afternoon peak and industry-leading automatic delay repay.”
The winning bidder for the new West Coast Partnership (WCP) franchise will be responsible for services on both the WCML from March 2020, and designing and running the initial HS2 high-speed services from 2026.
A joint bid was entered by Virgin Group, Stagecoach and SNCF, but this was one of three Stagecoach bids ruled out in April over pensions risks. The latter said it could could have been liable for £1.6 billion.
The trio have launched legal action against the DfT over the disqualification, stating that bidders were asked to take on “unquantifiable, unmanageable and inappropriate risk”.
Virgin Group boss Sir Richard Branson has previously said he was “baffled” as to why the DfT did not discuss the pensions issue before making its decision.
The department insists it has “total confidence” in its process.
The remaining shortlisted bidders for the WCP are both joint ventures.
A bid involving First Group and Trenitalia is competing against a partnership between MTR and Guangshen Railway Company.
The DfT has previously said it would announce the winner by the end of this month.
The National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) carried out by Transport Focus found that the proportion of journeys rated as satisfactory across all operators between February 4 and April 14 was 83%.
This was compared with 81% in spring 2018.
Heathrow Express – which operates on an open access agreement rather than a DfT franchise – achieved the highest rating at 95%.
This was followed by Virgin Trains (91%), Merseyrail (90%), Hull Trains (90%) and Chiltern Railways (90%).
The lowest ratings were given to Great Northern (77%), South Western Railway (78%), Northern (78%), Greater Anglia (80%) and Southeastern (80%).
Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: “At long last, passenger satisfaction has begun to improve, buoyed in particular by a keener focus on improved reliability and the arrival of new trains on some routes.
“More improvement is essential, but it must be hoped the positive changes captured by the latest NRPS are the start of a trend that signals the rebuilding of passenger trust in the railway.”
Jacqueline Starr, chief operating officer at industry body the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Last year was a difficult one for our passengers and while further improvements are needed, long-term investment by rail companies in new carriages, extra services and revamped stations is starting to be reflected in higher satisfaction scores.”
The autumn 2018 NRPS found that passenger satisfaction had fallen to a 10-year low of 79% after services were plagued by a series of issues.
Poor punctuality, the chaotic introduction of new timetables and disruption due to strikes were among the factors blamed for the performance.