First MTR joint venture awarded South Western franchise
First MTR South Western Trains Limited (First MTR) has been awarded the new South Western franchise by the government, which will see the introduction of 750 new train carriages to the network by 2020.
Pending the successful completion of a 10-day standstill period, the 70:30 joint venture will operate the seven-year franchise from 20 August 2017 until at least August 2024. But there is an extension option of up to 11 months at the DfT's discretion.
Stagecoach, which has operated the network under the South West Trains brand for over 20 years, said it was disappointed to have not retained the franchise.
Over the course of the contract, the DfT stated that £1.2bn will be invested to improve journeys on the South Western network. It is also the first franchise award since the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, set out his vision for the future of the railways, and “marks a new era in joined-up working between train operators and Network Rail”.
“Following on from our announcement on the start of the South Eastern Franchise consultation, this deal is more great news for rail passenger,” he said. “First MTR South Western Trains Limited will deliver the improvements that people tell us they want right across the South Western franchise area, from Bristol and Exeter, to Southampton and Portsmouth, to Reading, Windsor and London.
“We are delivering the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century and this franchise will deliver real changes for passengers, who can look forward to modern trains, faster journeys and a more reliable service.”
New fleet and rolling stock refurbishment
Under the new deal, First MTR will bring 750 new train carriages online for the Windsor, Reading and London Suburban routes by December 2020. In addition, there will be 18 additional, fully refurbished trains running on the London-Portsmouth route from December 2018.
The operator added that the refreshed mainland fleet will also benefit from free, more reliable wi-fi, and free infotainment as well as real-time travel and connection information screens. The new suburban trains, and all mainland stock, will also have at-seat charging points: Class 442s, 444s and 450s by December 2018, and Class 158s and 159s by December 2020.
It is expected that the average age of the entire fleet will come down by almost half by December 2020, with the new fleet providing over 46% more peak capacity on routes.
Reflecting on the award, Tim O’Toole, CEO of FirstGroup, said he was delighted that the partnership with MTR had been selected by the DfT to run the franchise.
“Our successful bid will deliver the tangible improvements that customers and stakeholders have told us they want from this franchise,” he added. “Passengers can look forward to new and better trains, more seats and services, quicker journey times, improved stations and more flexible fare options.”
Station and ticket improvements
In addition to the new rolling stock, the franchise operator will undertake a £90m station investment programme, including the refurbishment of Southampton Central. It will also progress plans for new stations at Park barn, Merrow and Wilton Parkway, among others.
The joint venture said it will also engage with the Isle of Wight community to develop plans to secure a more sustainable Island Line, with a business plan to be submitted to government. A £50,000 Customer and Communities Improvement Fund for the line has also been guaranteed.
Jeremy Long, CEO – European Business, MTR Corporation, who wrote for the latest edition of RTM, said: “MTR is known across the world for the excellent quality of its rail services, and we look forward to working with FirstGroup to provide a best-in-class travel experience for passengers in London and the South West.
“Together we will deliver a major programme of upgrades, including improvements to both rail services and customer experience, for passengers travelling across the South Western network.”
First MTR has also committed to introducing simpler fares with mobile and smart ticketing. These will include flexible season tickets and new lower fares for 16-18 year olds, recognising the importance of accessible rail travel.
The operator added that claiming compensation will also be made simpler with the introduction of an easy-to-use ‘delay repay’ scheme for the first time on the network.
Responding to the news, Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, said: “Passengers using trains on the South West network told us their main priorities for a new operator are: boosting reliability and more space to sit and stand in some comfort. They also want to see a better on train experience, stations modernised and improved information.
“Transport Focus is looking closely at the winning bid to see how these ambitious proposals will deliver for passengers. New trains, more services, smarter ticketing including flexible season tickets and lots of other promised improvements. We are looking forward to working closely with First MTR as it delivers these enhancements, emphasising this must be in a way that does not cause undue shorter term disruption.
“Passengers will be pleased to also see the introduction of boosted compensation through Delay Repay triggers being set at the lower level of 15 minutes – a big step in the right direction in building trust with passengers.”
In the latest National Rail Passenger Survey 83% of South West Train’s passengers were satisfied overall with their service, with 39% satisfied with value for money.
Faster services and apprentices
As well as ticket changes, First MTR will introduce additional and faster services. From the end of 2018, the operator will deliver faster journey times to stations including Hounslow, Reading, Southampton, Bournemouth, Weymouth, Portsmouth and Salisbury; double the service to both Reading and Windsor throughout the day; double the off-peak service between Southampton and Portsmouth and re-introduce through services between Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth and Weymouth to aid regional connectivity.
It has also committed to delivering more Sunday services across the network, with many routes having the equivalent of a Saturday service after 1.00pm.
The government aims to create 30,000 apprenticeships in the road and rail sector by 2020, and the new franchise will also see First MTR offer more than 100 apprenticeships each year.
Reflecting on the unsuccessful bid to retain the contract, Stagecoach Group chief executive Martin Griffiths said the company will be seeking “detailed feedback from the DfT on the various elements of our bid”.
“We believe we submitted a strong bid for the new South Western franchise. It offered a transformation in the travel experience for our customers, more investment to help the railway support the communities and economy of the south-west, as well as a substantial and deliverable financial benefit to taxpayers to help fund better public services,” he said.
“We are proud to have operated the network under the South West Trains brand for more than 20 years and we are disappointed that we have been unsuccessful in our bid for the new franchise.”
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