The new Wales and Borders franchise competition has deviated sharply from the process that awarded the previous contract to Arriva Trains Wales 14 years ago. The Welsh Government has aspirations to run a ‘not-for-profit’ railway that delivers for passengers, but how much do we know about what it will look like?
On 28 September, an invitation was issued to Abellio Rail Cymru, Arriva Rail Wales, KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation (Cymru) to submit their final bids for the new franchise. The bids will seek to address a list of priorities set out by the Welsh Government for the new 15-year franchise which, it says, is deliberately less restrictive than a typical Department for Transport (DfT) tender to allow for some creativity in the bidding process.
The successful bidder will become the custodian of a network that is growing in popularity. Passenger numbers grew from around 18 million in 2003 to 29 million in 2013 – a trend that has continued.
The Welsh Government has already said the new deal will include no increase in the subsidy level and will be run very much like a concession, where the operator is paid a certain amount to run the railway but doesn’t accrue any profits from ticket revenue. The aim is to put the focus on running a good quality service where the profits are invested back into the railway.
Although much of the detail won’t become clear until the winning bid is announced early next year, the Welsh Government’s aims for the route give some indication as to how the country’s railways will change from October next year.
Operator and development partner
‘It’s different isn’t it,’ said Mike Hewitson, head of policy at Transport Focus, which was approached by Transport for Wales (TfW) to gather passenger views and expectations for the future franchise. ‘You’re not even allowed to use the F word for this one,’ he joked.
One thing we know for sure is that the role of the new franchisee is changing. The winning bidder will become the Operator and Development Partner (ODP) for the route, essentially making it responsible for operating services and maintaining part of the network.
Ownership of a section of the route will change hands from Network Rail to TfW. The Welsh Government has said that Network Rail will retain the infrastructure outside of the Core Valley lines. However, it is unclear at this stage how the assets would be split and whether Network Rail would have to be contracted to carry out certain activities, like high output track renewals or rail grinding.
The need for investment in new rolling stock on the Wales and Borders route was highlighted in a report earlier this year, which showed that the average age of its fleet was 27 years old. Arriva Trains Wales did announce in July that it was acquiring five four-car Class 319 Flex bi-mode trains for commuter services in Cardiff – although these are far from new.
New trains will likely be a central part of all of the bids. The Welsh Government has issued a handful of priorities for the prospective operators around rolling stock requirements beyond 2018. This includes procuring electric traction on the Valley Lines which it hopes to electrify – at least partially – within the next franchise term. The new operator would then be able to look at phasing out its Class 142 and Class 143 Pacers.
Other expectations include having controlled- emission toilets, complying with current accessibility requirements and offering Wi-Fi and charging points to ‘meet increasing passenger expectations’.
This matches the research undertaken by Transport Focus. Unsurprisingly, it showed that passengers wanted to see longer trains, more seating or better standing areas and to feel that they are getting value for money. There was also a lot of feedback around station facilities, said Mike, something that could well feature highly in the final bids.
South Wales Metro
The creation of a South Wales Metro is the most eye-catching proposal. All options appear to be on the table and consultant Mott MacDonald is supporting the delivery. In this role, it is looking at possible new stations, enhancements to the existing network and even potentially replacing the Core Valley Lines with a light rail system.
Whatever technical solution is pursued, the government has set out some minimum service requirements. The new operator will need to provide at least four trains per hour on the Core Valley Lines, with higher frequency services south of Pontypridd and Caerphilly into Cardiff , reduce journey times by 20 per cent and introduce new direct services between certain large residential areas.
When Transport Focus was asked to gather passenger views on the Wales and Borders rail service, it was the friendly and helpful staff that received some of the highest praise.
Last month, the Welsh Government offered a few concrete commitments around staffing for the new franchise. The most notable was a promise to have a ‘safety critical conductor (guard)’ on all services – a response to the trade union stance on driver-only operation (DOO).
Following discussions with the Wales TUC trade union body, First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones said there would be ‘more staff not less employed on the franchise’ and that technology would be introduced to ‘complement staff and not replace them’. There will be a trade union representative on the TfW board, pensions will be protected and there will be no compulsory redundancies.
In a statement, Carwyn Jones said, ’Our hard-working railway staff are a major asset in delivering a modern and safe railway and it is right that they are central to our ambitious plans for the new Wales and border services and South Wales Metro.’
Passengers at its heart
Transport Focus has been working closely with the DfT over the past few years to ensure that passenger feedback is helping to shape future franchises, so passengers are at the heart of the discussion. ‘If we do the research early enough we can try and get it into the specification in the first place,’ said Mike.
Research carried out by Transport Focus around devolution, which particularly focussed on developments in the North West, found that, although there was general support for local influence on services, passengers still wanted to be part of a national network. We’ll just have to wait and see how the new franchise will balance local priorities with the aims of the national network.
This article was written by Marc Johnson.