BRITISH operator FirstGroup has submitted a preliminary application to regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) to introduce an open-access service between London and Rochdale that could start in 2027.

The company is proposing to operate six return services a day from London Euston to Rochdale, calling at Warrington Bank Quay on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), Newton-le-Willows, Eccles and Manchester Victoria.

As well as providing a direct connection between Rochdale and London for the first time since 2000, FirstGroup says that the proposed open-access service would provide easier access via Eccles and interchange with the Manchester Metrolink light rail network to the city of Salford.

Calling at Newton-le-Willows would provide greater rail connectivity for nearby St Helens. FirstGroup says that the new service would provide 1.6 million people in northwest England with a convenient and competitively-priced direct rail service to London from more convenient local stations, helping to stimulate modal shift to rail from coaches and the private car.

As the line between Manchester Victoria and Rochdale is not electrified, the new fleet of British-built electric trains that will be ordered to operate the new service will also be equipped with traction batteries.

London - Rochdale would be the second route for FirstGroup’s open-access business Lumo, which began operating between London and Edinburgh in October 2021. Since launching, FirstGroup says that Lumo has carried 2.5 million passengers. Discussions are now underway to extend the service to Glasgow.

“We have seen the level of growth and opportunity that is possible with open access, as well as the positive effect it has on the wider market, including economic and environmental benefits,” says FirstGroup CEO, Mr Graham Sutherland.

Virgin considers return to rail

Separately, Virgin Group has applied to operate four open-access services on the WCML, running from London Euston to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow Central. According to reports in the British media, the Manchester service would also run to Rochdale.

The Virgin Trains joint venture of Virgin Group and Stagecoach held the franchise to operate inter-city passenger services on the WCML from March 9 1997 until December 7 2019, when it was succeeded by the Avanti West Coast joint venture of FirstGroup and Italian State Railways’ (FS) passenger subsidiary Trenitalia.

According to a Virgin Group spokesperson, the application to ORR is “just the first step towards exploring what might be possible”.

“We’re confident customers would welcome Virgin Trains back, providing them with much-needed choice and competition.”