A game changer for Wales and Borders

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 17

Andy Thomas, managing director for Network Rail’s Wales route, describes how the infrastructure owner will work more collaboratively than ever with whoever is chosen to operate the next Wales & Borders franchise.

When transport secretary Chris Grayling announced in December last year his intentions to implement integrated operating teams between rail services and infrastructure, the move was seen as a largely innovative model of working. Without a doubt, the creation of East West Rail, an organisation distinct from Network Rail tasked with joining track and train and securing private investment, was of a scale not seen before in the industry. But prior to Grayling’s intervention, similarly ambitious and integrated models of working had already started taking root at a local level. 

Speaking to RTM earlier this year, John Larkinson, the ORR’s director of railway markets and economics, highlighted the work the Welsh government had been taking forward with Transport for Wales (TfW) and Network Rail to embed some infrastructure responsibilities into the region’s upcoming franchise refresh, praising the close conversations being had in the region to implement these changes. 

To find out how these conversations have been progressing, we spoke to Andy Thomas, the new managing director for Network Rail’s devolved Wales route, who was keen to describe the groundwork that had already been laid by local partners. 

Thomas, who recently returned to the UK after stints in India’s Hyderabad Metro Rail and Australia’s Transport for New South Wales, joined the infrastructure owner at what is arguably its most interesting period as the impact of route devolution begins to materialise. 

“It’s an exciting time to be here,” he agreed. “The devolution is a fundamental time to drive the organisations together. It’s very much focused on joint scorecards, joint route boards and working closer together with the TOCs so as to provide better services for passengers.” 

As well as devolution, he is joining the Welsh team just as the new Wales & Borders franchise begins to take shape. While services will only start in 2018, four potential bidders were already shortlisted in October last year, including the incumbent TOC Arriva as well as Abellio Rail Cymru, KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation. 

But unlike the previous franchise – which, much like those in the north, was let with a no-growth expectation – the next contract is intended to be transformational. The government is encouraging operators to embrace new technology; deliver the best possible range of services, including by considering new ones; boost capacity by delivering modern rolling stock; improve station accessibility and intermodal integration; make “considerable progress” to better integrate tickets with other transport modes; and, finally, look at the possibilities around smart ticketing. 

The Metro option 

Yet the franchise’s truly eye-catching detail is the government’s decision to delegate responsibility to the successful bidder for developing and implementing plans for the Core Valley Lines as part of the £600m South Wales Metro system, which covers 10 local authorities in the region. 

“All four bidders have varying solutions for that Metro option, and we are supporting Welsh government and working really closely with them to allow that to happen,” explained Thomas. “And that would mean that under TfW and the government, there would be a transfer of those assets and the running of those services as part of the overall solution.” 

The government has already set out its ambitions for the Metro, but bidders were responsible for devising their own plans as to how the system could look as it is expanded in the coming years. A slice of the successful operator’s profit will have to be reinvested in the railway to fund improvements as part of what economy and infrastructure minister Ken Skates called an “ambitious and creative not-for-profit model”. 

“There are varying commercial models that will come with each of the bidders,” Thomas clarified. “At this point, it’s a little bit early to tell what the bidders would be potentially putting in. But normally in a franchise there’s an element that is provided by the government, and then there’s an element that the bidder would provide. 

“And traditionally, that’s been very much associated with the trains, customer service and stations, for example. In this instance, there is an opportunity in terms of how the assets are dealt with as well. But it really does depend on each of the bidders and the proposals they come up with.” 

Different collaboarative models 

Leaving aside the Metro option, the Wales & Borders franchise is a normal contract that will include TOC and Network Rail-run assets. But the Metro feature that stands at the centre of the proposed deal would turn the TOC into an ‘operator and development partner’. 

“That would be ourselves working collaboratively – up to a potential alliance – with the successor,” he revealed, but insisted it was difficult to describe much more without treading into commercially sensitive territory. 

“Each operator has different proposals, which would mean varying degrees of how we would work together. What really is important is that Network Rail, UK government and Welsh government work collaboratively to get the right outcome for that franchise, as well as the Metro element that’s within it. And that’s what we’re really working hard towards now.” 

Asked if discussions had been put on hold as a result of this year’s snap general election, Thomas guaranteed that “in the main, they’ve kept going”, despite being a lot quieter in terms of media announcements due to purdah restrictions. In terms of the process itself, it’s still moving forward at pace in preparation for the invitation to tender (ITT) that will go out in July. 

Preparing for the transition 

While the next contract sounds promising – the commitment to new rolling stock alone is likely already enough to satisfy customers currently struggling with ageing trains as part of a franchise that didn’t plan for growth – there is still over a year to go before the changing of the guard. Until then, Network Rail has committed to working collaboratively with Arriva Trains Wales to improve services in the meantime. 

“Obviously, once the tender goes out and an announcement is made early next year, there will then be a period of time where the new franchise, together with Network Rail, will be getting themselves ready for that smooth transition,” said Thomas. “And for that smooth transition, they are focusing on passenger needs, the growth of the network and delivering solutions between now and the actual start of that franchise date. 

“Passengers don’t care who’s to blame, so hence why we’ve put in place a collaborative approach with the existing TOC, which we’ll do in the future too. It focuses on those services now, that common communication and delivering those results. 

“And obviously, having robust plans in place now ahead of CP6 so that we’re all on the same page and driving towards the same thing is fundamental. Those plans are being developed and put in place at the same time that this franchise is being put together.”


Image c. Matt Buck


D.W.Roberts   18/07/2017 at 13:22

It is difficult to see what TfW adds to the structure except an extra layer of "jobs for the boys" which is a common feature in Wales. Assuredly it will be "Not for profit" but I doubt any of the bidders will bid anything other than commercially, as they are all simple business organisations..

Peter Jarvis   19/09/2017 at 01:02

A new railcar for the Conwy Valley line would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. This must be one of the worst loss-leaders on Network Rail. The signalling and level crossings are outdated, one superannuated twin railcar trundles up and down slower than fifty years ago, and on an obviously outstanding line for tourism, there is a restricted view out of the windows. There is little effort to publicise the line, except by local volunteers. There are through tickets to be had onto the progressive little narrow-gauge railway to Porthmadog, but little effort to promote the connection - at one time there were posters at Llandudno Station advertising trips to local attractions - but no longer. At one time, the narrow gauge company to the south was interested in running the Conwy Valley line, but being discouraged from this, they built a line to Caernarfon instead, which they run at a small profit. Collaboration with the neighbours may be profitable for the Conwy Valley line too.

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