Figures released this week by Virgin Trains show that passenger numbers between the North West and London have grown by at least two-thirds since the number of services were increased two years ago by the West Coast train operator.
The growth figures and details of planned service improvements from 2009 were revealed during a conference In Warrington on future rail links for the region organised by the North West Business Leadership Team.
Chris Gibb, Virgin Trains' managing director, told the conference: "The growth figures since 2004 are only the start. We have an impressive package of further train service improvements for the North West, which will start in 2009. The completion of the majority of track upgrade work will allow us to increase West Coast train services by 32%, providing an additional 13 million seats a year annually in the UK. A large proportion of this extra capacity will be provided through the North West region."
Details of the proposed service improvements included operating three trains an hour to/from Manchester/Stockport and London, three additional peak time trains to/from Liverpool/Runcorn and London each morning plus a new hourly service to/from Chester and London.
During the busiest times of the year Virgin Trains also intends to provide a Sunday service which is equivalent to the weekday off-peak timetable, with journey times significantly reduced compared to current weekend journey times.
Virgin Trains also stated that the recent doubling of the train service to half-hourly on the Manchester/Stockport to London has been matched with a 121% increase in passenger numbers. In August 2007 the London-Liverpool route was Virgin's most punctual West Coast route with 92% of trains arriving on time.
Passenger Focus, the consumer organisation which represents the interests of rail users nationally, welcomed the news but warned that more is needed to be done to address existing parking and ticketing problems. Spokeswoman Julie Warburton commented:
"The additional services will ease some of the overcrowding currently experienced by passengers who pay a substantial amount for their tickets only to find they haven't a seat. Currently nearly half of passengers surveyed in our Spring 2007 National Passenger Survey, say they do not feel they get value for money with Virgin West Coast services, possibly because it is difficult for passengers to know how to purchase the cheaper tickets that are often available."
Warburton added: "Our survey also showed that 60% of passengers have difficulty parking at Virgin West Coast stations. This problem is generic across the country and is likely to increase as the number of passengers and services increase. Although Virgin West Coast is currently working with Network Rail to increase the size of the car parks we would urge them to work with local transport authorities to improve bus links, increase park and ride schemes and more importantly for the environment, promote walking or cycling to the railway station."
Around 20m passengers currently use West Coast services, an increase of around 40% since 2003. Virgin Trains took over the West Coast operation in 1997 in a franchise which is set to expire in 2012.