FirstGroup has managed to steady investor nervousness with news that it has won extensions to two of its franchises.
The flagship operation, First Great Western (FGW), has been granted a four-to-five year extension and First TransPennine Express rail franchise a further year. FirstGroup missed out on five recent franchises but is fighting back with an array of innovations on FGW and ambitious plans to run an open access cheap express on the East Coast Main Line.
First TransPennine Express has seen a remarkable doubling in passenger numbers over the last 10 years, thanks to a huge effort by staff.
Says Tim O’Toole, chief executive FirstGroup, ‘Since the franchise began, our experienced team has worked hard to introduce brand new trains, refurbish stations, increase frequency and improve journey times. As a result, the service is more popular than ever, now carrying 26 million passengers a year compared to 13 million in 2004.’
In the west, the new franchise agreement, which will see First retain the route until April 2019, takes account of the introduction of new Super Express trains which will start taking over long-distance services between London, Bristol and South Wales and the Cotswolds from summer 2017.
The electrification of one of Britain’s busiest and oldest railways proceeds apace. The work between London and Bristol, including Newbury and Oxford, will be completed by 2016, with the route to Cardiff electrified by 2017.
First Great Western hopes to introduce 29 new long-distance AT300 trains on London, Devon and Cornwall routes – subject to agreement from the Department for Transport (DfT). Hitachi will supply the new fleet of AT300 125 mph bi-mode trains, similar to the new Super Express Trains, in five and nine-car formations. First is finalising arrangements under which the trains would be privately financed. The trains will replace FGW’s Intercity 125 units between London Paddington- Plymouth and Penzance.
The AT300 trains will utilise higher engine operating power to cope with the track gradients in Devon and Cornwall. They will run as electric trains between London and Newbury and are equipped with bigger fuel tanks to cater for the long-distance journeys to Plymouth and Penzance.
In addition, a fleet upgrade for services in the Thames Valley is planned from next spring. FGW says this will lead to a 25 per cent increase in seats on peak services.
Says Tim O’Toole, ‘As the proud operators of this important franchise, we will be using our unrivalled knowledge and experience of the network to help deliver significant upgrades over the next few years – in particular, the introduction of new trains as the mainline is electrified. This investment is the biggest on the route since Brunel, and will transform a key part of the country’s transport infrastructure.’