by Phil Marsh

First Great Western given a two year franchise extension

Published: 21st October 2013

UK Rail franchising starts again while in France its back to SNCF…

The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced that First Greater Western Ltd (FGW) will continue to operate trains on the Great West Main Line (GWML) Paddington, Bristol, Penzance, Gloucester, Weymouth, West Wales and to Portsmouth until September 2015. FGW exercised their option to withdraw from a three year franchise extension some time ago which was another error by the DfT to include this in the Agreement.

The two year extension was awarded following the franchise farce last year when Virgin challenged the DfT’s award of the West Coast Main Line franchise to First Group and won. Franchising ceased with immediate effect and existing operators have been offered extensions of up to two years.

The announcement suggests that passengers will have better facilities such as greater WiFi coverage, although any long distance train operator would have been providing this facility in any case. The DfT claim that this new 23 month franchise is yet another clear signal that the government’s programme is on-track.

They also suggest that it allows “the continued delivery of vital work to upgrade the line in future, including electrification to help deliver faster, more reliable journeys”. Although when this statement is analysed, it is difficult to see how the franchise extension could in any other way effect the huge and welcome Network Rail electrification and resignalling project. Reading station and associated track improvements plus electrification will bring significant benefits to all rail users irrespective of who operates the trains!

They said:

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that: The Great Western franchise provides a vital service for thousands of passengers every day and under this deal they will see real benefits.

For communities like Devon and Cornwall the train is a life-line bringing in business and helping secure the leisure industry the community relies upon. This agreement will provide additional sleeper carriages between London and Cornwall securing the future of a key service once under threat.

We have also secured a commitment to deliver greater WiFi coverage to improve the experience of long distance journeys for passengers. But I am also determined that we see further improvements during the lifetime of this contract; more standard class and fewer first class seats on key services and the delivery of more electric trains for the Thames Valley.

What are the real improvements?

FGW will be offering two more sleeper carriages to its services between London and Penzance but it is not clear if this is one extra carriage each way per night or two extra carriages at busy periods. Cornwall Council and Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership have provided additional funding for the service in recognition of the important role it plays in meeting the needs of business travelers.

More trains will be fitted with free wireless internet services, which is essential and more and more trains are being fitted as a standalone business case and not part of any DfT contract requirement. One curious part of the announcement is that through services will continue from Cornwall, Hereford, Weston-super-Mare, Bedwyn and Pewsey to Paddington. Rail.co.uk was not aware these were under threat. There will also be more standard class seats at the expense of First Class seats to ease overcrowding.

The provision of extra parking spaces at Bristol Parkway station by spring 2014 is obviously welcomed but again is something that the growth in rail traffic demands. The DfT also said that FGW get £4.6 million to upgrade stations most in need across their network.

Franchise extension in Essex

The FGW announcement follows the DFT awarding C2C an extension for their franchise running trains between London and Southend in their current Essex Thameside franchise until September 2014.

This meant that the National Express Group’s only rail franchise continues keeping them in the market for the DfT’s refranchising programme. The DfT says it is a short term contract running for 16 months and was the first contract agreed by the DfT with the rail industry after the revised railways franchising programme was announced in March. Depending on circumstances, the deal could be extended by up to eight months making it a two-year deal.

These awards followed a similar deal with Virgin to keep operating WCML services.

The next competitions

The Government has just started three long term franchise competitions and have invited bidders to register for the Essex Thameside, Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) and East Coast franchises.

They said:

Rail Minister Simon Burns said: Rail franchising has been a force for good on our railways and the department has been working hard to roll out its new franchising schedule.

These are the first invitations to tender to be issued since the independent Brown review into rail franchising, which endorsed the government’s approach to the railways.

We are now looking for innovative bids that provide value for money for taxpayers and put passengers right back at the heart of our railways. Mr Burns has since resigned and is contesting the Deputy Speaker’s position in Parliament.

The bids will take until at least May next year to be decided and the Essex Thameside contract starts in September 2014 and runs for 15 years. The Thameslink and Great Northern elements of the TSGN franchise will also start in September 2014 with the Southern element being phased in by July 2015 and run for seven years.

Meanwhile in France.

The former French Government railway company, SNCF, is to make a return despite European legislation which started the rail privatisation and market harmonisation 20 years ago.

SNCF will be reborn managing all aspects of the rail industry and once legislation has been passed next Spring, will bring what the railways minister said would be an ‘ambitious’ programme for reform of the rail sector. This would end the split between track and signalling operated by Réseau Ferré de France (RFF) in 1997 (the French Network Rail) and combine the many different parts of the railways which he said were ‘scattered and badly co-ordinated’.

The politicians will seek to recreate SNCF which will be the owner of subsiduary companies and set overall strategy. SNCF Réseau will merge RFF with the SNCF Infra maintenance organisation and the traffic management company DCF into one maintenance and infrastructure company while actual train operations will be overseen by SNCF Mobilités.

The French railway debt stands at around £40billion between the rail organisations and the transport funding body AFITF will assume finance and funding responsibility for major projects. Performance contracts will be set in place between the Gvernment and the three railway organisations to help restructure railway finances but the objective of the legislation is also to enhance the public service element of the railways.

The French authorities said that these chganges do comply with European legislation.

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