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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.

Island Line

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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Pdeaves   27/03/2017 at 11:26

The signs were there (see With /any/ new ownership, I feel for the staff 'on the ground' and wish them well during the changes and uncertainty.

Anders   27/03/2017 at 12:39

Usually TOC MD is not responsible for running the re-franchising tendering. It is always done by separate people from operational team, specially hired for this purpose. After running franchise for 20 years, your view and approach to running services can become stagnant. I personally change was needed, at least on strategic approach. It surprises me why there's a mention in previous comment about the time of uncertainty for the staff 'on the ground' normal practice will take place when franchise changes hands, all people (staff on the ground & management) will just TUPE across to the new company and all their current work conditions are protected. What is the biggest surprise in this announcement is the imminent return of Class 442. Considering they're not ones of most reliable fleets and they have signed up for better reliability, hence even GTR replaced them on Gatwick Express Services shortly after winning franchise. Interesting is also nothing was mentioned who will be the manufacturer of the new 90 train-sets (750 carriages), when east anglia new franchise was announced the new rolling stock was announced at the same time. It makes me think that this procurement won't be political and is left for operator to procure.

Andrew Gwilt   27/03/2017 at 17:40

So what will happen to the Island Line. Will First MTR separate the 2 operators and Isle Of Wright to operate its own open access franchise whilst First MTR may change South West Trains to Southwestern Trains with a new brand and also more Class 707's to be delivered that will have a new livery and to operate on the Waterloo-Windsor & Eton Riverside route as the Class 458's to operate on the Waterloo-Reading route and Class 450's to cascade to operate on the Alton route.

Jimbo   27/03/2017 at 19:14

@Andrew Gwilt - All you are describing are the plans that the current franchise holder had, not what First are planning. The press release from First makes no mention of the 707's or the 458's, so whilst the current plans are likely to continue in the short term, it will be different in the future. First are planning to buy 750 new vehicles for 90 new trains, which will definitely replace the 91 x 455's and may even replace the 36 x 458's. It is not clear whether the 30 x 707's (150 vehicles) are included in the 750 vehicles/90 new trains, but if so, that leaves 600 new vehicles and 60 new trains, which fits nicely into 60 x 10-car trains.

Andrew Gwilt   28/03/2017 at 00:48

Ok. If that's the case then new trains could be built to replace the Class 455's and Class 456's as well Southern's Class 455's on suburban routes across Southwest London and South London. Which still TfL wants to take over the suburban services occupied by South West Trains and Southern.

Chris M   28/03/2017 at 03:46

Andrew, new trains WILL be built and the SWT 455s/456s WILL be retired. TFL WON'T take over the services. And the Southern 455 fleet you talked abouthas got nothing to do with this announcement. It is about new trains for the lines from Waterloo....

Andrew Gwilt   28/03/2017 at 08:16

I get your point across Chris M.

Mostyn   28/03/2017 at 16:52

First is the majority player in this franchise award despite Grayling's clutching at the straw of MTR involvement. First have a long history in franchising - will they last the course here? Grayling's desperation to keep TfL away from another London suburban service is as credible as the propping up of Southern.

Solent Lad   28/03/2017 at 17:07

What about the proposed Southampton-London open access rail franchise that could happen and to use the Class 442's if it does get the approval.

Matthew Read   28/03/2017 at 21:38

It's good that the Class 442's are coming back but I'd rather see them on the Weymouth line where they belong and have the 444's put back on the Portsmouth lines. First/MTR need to grant permission to Alliance Rail if the new London-Southampton service is to go ahead.

Solent Lad   28/03/2017 at 23:16

Absolutely Matthew.

Jerry Alderson   29/03/2017 at 00:04

Re: "Usually TOC MD is not responsible for running the re-franchising tendering. It is always done by separate people from operational team, specially hired for this purpose." The DfT requires there to be Chinese walls. This is probably for EU porocurement rules but it always wants the bids to be highly competitive so that it gets the best deal. (Anyone remember the ITV franchise auction debacle in 1990?) The bidding team for the incumbent is not allowed to know any more information than the other bidders. I've chatted to several TOC MDs about the process and they have all claimed to have been kept 'in the dark.' RE: "With /any/ new ownership, I feel for the staff 'on the ground' and wish them well during the changes and uncertainty." Railway staff are incredibly well protected compared to other industries. Essentially it is because of the skills specific to the locality especially drivers. Excluding management, 100% of TOC staff will normally keep their jobs and almost all remain in the same role. I've been involved in outsourcing both as a supplier and as a client in other industries. Because the skills were more transferrable (especially where industry standards, e.g. around documentation and processes, had been followed) then the majority of people supporting the client may have changed. Often if a supplier lost the business many staff would lose their jobs. But not on the railway. Staff don't know how lucky they are.

Rail Realist   29/03/2017 at 10:39

Strangely missing from the announcement is whether DOO or DCO will be planned for introduction on the rolling stock that replaces the 455s. Its a logical progression but also a hot potato

Andrew JG   29/03/2017 at 16:24

Well at least I can't wait for the 30 Class 707's to start operating on the London Waterloo-Windsor & Eton Riverside, Weybridge and Hounslow Loop services from April with the Class 458/5's that is to be transferred will operate on the London Waterloo-Reading and other outer-suburban services and the Class 450's to be transferred to the London Waterloo-Alton service as well to Portsmouth Harbour/Portsmouth & Southsea, Basingstoke, Southampton Central, Guildford, Woking and other semi-fast and suburban stopping services.

James Miller   29/03/2017 at 18:08

I'm not totally sure, but I think, it would be possible to have four trains per hour on the suburban branches with just 16 trains or 32 trains if they are ten cars. Four trains per hour to Windsor would need 8 trains or 16 running as 10 cars. They can't do this until Waterloo has got the new platforms. It could be a much improved service.

Melvyn   29/03/2017 at 23:05

While this franchise is a joint MTR First franchise award it still means that with First operating the GWR Franchise millions of rail users no longer have any true competition for their rail services with users from say Reading now having First involved in both competing routes to London. This is only a short franchise and so is not going to provide much opportunity for long term investments and no mention is made of the continued operation of DMUs from Waterloo to Exeter . Although recent developments where diesel motors and fuel tanks are being added to Class 319 trains in the North West which fool the train into thinking its running on electricity instead of diesel via the DC motors may be suitable for Exeter route ahead of extended electrification in the future. Given the average term of most Transport Secretaries I doubt if present refusal to transfer services to London Mayor and TFL will last long given election may now only be a couple of years away !

Gabs   30/03/2017 at 08:03

Can any of you chaps explain how they could make the claimed 11 minute reduction on the Salisbury to Waterloo route?

Rob   30/03/2017 at 14:27

What a waste of money, buying the brand new class 707 trains and having refurbishment work done on the class 458/5's in the last few years, only for them to end up the siding within the next 3 years as they are not wanted by the soon to be Franchisee holder! I live 5 minutes walk from the Martins Heron railway station and most Saturday's travel by train to somewhere around the country by train. From the end of next month I believe the Reading line will be seeing the class 458/5 units transfer on to the Reading Route, as the Windsor route are getting the new class 707 trains. But these sets of trains will only be on these routes for about 3 years at most, as they will then be replaced by some of the 90 plus new trains that First/MTR want to acquire.

Jimbo   30/03/2017 at 19:05

There has not yet been an official announcement from First/MTR about the 707's and 458's so any news at the moment is just guesses. The BBC report on this is rather alarmist and has a number of factual errors. It seems more likely that the 707's will be reconfigured to match First/MTR's requirements, rather than being "dumped".

Billie   30/03/2017 at 20:32

This is not a good move, little competition, First gobbling everything up. Chris Grayling's preference, I guess. Fares and services haywire, and taking on the franchise in midst of Waterloo upgrade. Not a good look. As per previous comment, i feel sorry for the staff. SWT were great, and will be missed.

Chris@Chesterfield   30/03/2017 at 21:36

One of the benefits of franchising will be that someone will be paying for the current stylish train livery to be replaced by one of First's dull (but slightly frantic) efforts. I wonder who?

Richardh   30/03/2017 at 23:17

A complete amateur here so excuse my ignorance, what is First likely to run into Exeter from the Salisbury direction when they take over in August (?) - my (passenger) experience of SWT's existing stock used gets 9 out of 10 (Class 159s I believe)

Angry Solent Commuter   31/03/2017 at 02:14

I just heard that First MTR may not want the Class 707's? Why! And all that money has been spent on building 30 Class 707's for South West Trains (soon to be renamed as South Western Trains) (soon to be rebranded) as the new operator as they will start their 7 year franchise from 20 August 2017. And may not want the Class 707's at all and it could be sited at Wimbledon Depot and Clapham Yard and just staying there. I think its a absolute joke on what First MTR have done. I think that Stagecoach should of extended their franchise to 9 years more so that they can use the Class 707's on the Windsor line and on some suburban services in Southwest London and North Surrey as they have ordered 150 new carriages. I want Stagecoach and South West Trains back!! #BringbackStagecoachGroup & #BringbackSouthWestTrains

Angry Solent Commuter   31/03/2017 at 02:15

Also they are retain 18 Class 442's.

Boris   03/04/2017 at 00:42

Friend of Andrew's above?

Andrew Gwilt   06/04/2017 at 21:06

No Boris. Its a different Andrew for goodness sake.

Eric   09/04/2017 at 22:06

Hi - do any of you know if there are plans to retire the ancient 455s that run from Guildford via Epsom to Waterloo? I live in Worcester Park (Surrey) and it's pretty poor to have non-air conditioned trains without any onboard toilets for such a journey. Is there. A plan to reallocate the trains currently on the Windsor line to my line at all? Many thanks.

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