by Phil Marsh

High quality expected for night trains to Scotland

Published: 22nd August 2013

Draft ITT issued for Caledonian Sleeper franchise

There could be as many as four classes of travel on an improved overnight rail service between London and Scotland.

But subsidies will only cover the three classes specified as a minimum requirement – “Budget” seats or couchettes, “Family” Standard Class sleeping berths and “Business” single-berth compartments.

If the winning bidder for the new Caledonian Sleeper franchise opts to provide a fourth, top-of-the-range, premium class, that will have to be fully self-financing.

Within the minimum specification, the Business compartments are to have en-suite toilets. Showers are also possible, but they are only an option.

Public consultation has confirmed that passengers are not happy about walking to a communal loo at the end of each coach during the night. Shared toilets are likely to continue in other parts of the trains, however.

Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government agency that handles the main ScotRail franchise and the Caledonian Sleeper one, has made it clear that to win the right to run the cross-border night trains, bidders must demonstrate that they will improve the quality of the service.

Ministers and officials are keen to see the new overnight franchise promoting Scotland internationally, with passengers effectively being welcomed to Scotland as soon as they step on the train in London. Catering is also to reflect the best of Scotland. Branding of the service is to be emblematic of Scotland.

Scotland’s transport Minister Keith Brown MSP said: “The Scottish Government is reinforcing its commitment to the Sleeper and underlining this with investment in the rolling stock to transform the service, support for a 15-year contract, and key improvements like wi-fi throughout the train with booster equipment to maximise signal strength.”

Mr Brown added that there would also be investment in stations and track to enhance services. “I believe the improved specification in the Invitation To Tender to be issued to bidders will secure a transformed future for the Caledonian Sleeper and deliver a new and enhanced service emblematic of the very best of Scotland.”

For security there will be CCTV in all public areas, although not in compartments. “Budget” passengers will have secure storage for luggage and other passengers will have their own keys to lock their compartments – unlike now.

. Money talks but may not win the deal

In contrast to previous franchising policy under the Department for Transport, Transport Scotland insists that the financial bottom line will not be the sole criterion for judging the winner. Quality for the customer and the community will also play a major part in the decision.

New marketing and sales initiatives are expected.

Political dreams?

Subsidies during the 15-year Sleeper franchise are likely to be substantial, with the total cost for the public purse coming in at more than £100 million, including funding for station improvements and substantial refurbishment of rolling stock. The UK Government intends to put up £50 million, to be at least equalled by the devolved Scottish Government.

The UK’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, the Westminster MP whose constituency includes Inverness, welcomed the planned upgrade of the Sleeper services, describing this as a good example of “Britain’s two Governments working together to the benefit of the country” and an advantage of the Liberal Democrats being part of the Westminster coalition.

The expectation is that the current fleet will continue to carry overnight passengers after the coaches have been rebuilt to an “as new” standard by 2018. However, bidders will have the option to consider completely new coaches for at least part of the fleet. Refurbishment may be carried out in Scotland, although there can be no guarantee of that under EU competition rules.

Transport Scotland anticipates a partnering relationship with the future franchisee, in order to achieve a profit share. Bidders will be required to offer guaranteed on time departures and arrivals with a sliding scale of fare reimbursement to passengers if they are not achieved or if specified on-board facilities are not available for use.

The London terminus is to be specified as Euston, as now, although there had been talk of Waterloo. The operator will be allowed to switch from the current West Coast to the East Coast Main Line if they wish, but Carlisle will still have to be served as it is a railhead for parts of southern Scotland.

Sleeper stations

The Sleepers will continue to call at all the stations in Scotland that are currently served, but the operator could opt for more trains than now – at present there are two overnight trains each way six nights a week, one splitting at Edinburgh into portions for Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, the other dividing at Carstairs for Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Good connections with trains and other transport will be required for journeys to and from a wide range of places in Scotland that are not directly served by Sleepers. The franchise specification will also highlight a need for good connections at Crianlarich for Oban – by rail or road, although if road is chosen it must be “high quality” with provision for bicycles to be carried.

A draft Invitation To Tender (ITT) has been published on the Transport Scotland website. After responses to the draft have been considered, a final ITT will be issued in the autumn of this year to the three bidders on the shortlist – Arriva, FirstGroup and Serco. It is expected that the winner will be announced in the summer of 2014 to start the new Sleeper franchise on 31 March 2015.

The Caledonian Sleepers are currently part of the main ScotRail franchise operated by FirstGroup.

The current levels of overnight service were established with rail privatisation in the 1990s after a Save Our Sleepers campaign successfully blocked withdrawal of the Fort William leg of the Highland service.

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