Virgin Trains has been accused of trying to force a smaller train rival out of business with attempts to launch a “spoiler service” in the region.
The Wrexham and Shropshire train company, which operates a service between North Wales and London, has already been prevented from using major West Midlands stations by Virgin Trains and now Virgin is bidding to run a similar service along the line.
The current service, offering £53 standard class, anytime fares between the capital and Wrexham, runs through Shrewsbury, Telford and Wolverhampton but is banned from operating at the West Midland stations it passes through – such as Birmingham New Street, Birmingham International and Coventry.
Virgin Trains runs West Coast Main Line services from those stations and has exclusivity in its contract.
Virgin withdrew direct services to Shrewsbury in 2002 but has now applied to the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) to run services from London to Shrewsbury and Wrexham by December.
Thomas Ableman, marketing director at the Wrexham and Shropshire train company, said: “If they do start up we will have to close because we will not be able to sustain the business. If they are allowed to operate on the route we serve it would be very unfair. We are in favour of competition, but only on a level playing field. Virgin Trains has a ‘moderation of competition’ clause in its franchise contract, which runs until 2012.
“It is unique in the UK and it means that they have exclusivity and nobody can compete against them at the major West Midlands stations.
“It means we don’t even stop at New Street. We are not even allowed to put information or updates on the services on boards and screens in these stations. Even when the West Coast Mainline is not operating, because of repairs, we are not able to use these stations.
“If the clause is removed in 2012 it would be a different story because we would also be allowed to operate from the stations that they currently use. But they should not be able to do this whilst the clause is in place. They have shown no interest in this region.”
Owen Paterson, Conservative MP for Shropshire North, has written to the ORR and has led a delegation of MPs to raise the matter with Transport Minister, Lord Adonis. He said: “We have this fantastic, reliable, old fashioned, friendly service and all this may go, it’s tragic.
“I am very angry with Virgin. This is certainly an attempt to drive them out of business. I can understand that they wanted a monopoly on these stations, which is due to expire in 2012. It is one thing to want some assurances for the investment they have since provided, but it is quite another thing to use the monopoly to snub out other operators.
“If the service is killed off no other entrepreneur is going to bother trying to build it up.”
In his letter to the ORR, Mr Paterson, added: “While we are all in favour of competition, it would not be right for Virgin to go ahead with a rival operation backed by £162 million of public subsidy whilst Virgin’s franchise contracts exclude all other operators from Wolverhampton and Birmingham.”
A Virgin spokesman said the company withdrew from the route in 2002 following the downturn in rail travel after the 2000 Hatfield rail crash. He added: “There’s no question of our trying to put anyone out of business. We see our services complementing those of the Wrexham & Shropshire company.”