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Strategic shake-up

Splitting up the Great Western franchise and creating a new West of England operator is one of several ideas put forward in the Government’s new Strategic Vision for Rail.

The news was accompanied by an announcement that the Department for Transport (DfT) plans to exercise an option to extend the current Great Western franchise by 12 months and begin talks for a direct award contract to extend the contract by another two years.

As well as splitting up the Great Western franchises, the DfT is considering breaking up the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. The result would be a greater number of smaller train operators which, the DfT believes, will be able to better serve their routes.

West of England franchise

A consultation discussing the future of the Great Western franchise has been published which indicates that the government is considering whether to split the franchise into two from 2022 and create a separate West of England franchise. The Great Western franchise in its current form was created in 2006 by combining the Great Western, Wessex and Thames Trains franchises.

The Government has described its Strategic Vision for Rail as an approach which will help bring track and train closer together. A new body which combines the current East Coast train operator (Stagecoach/Virgin) and Network Rail called the East Coast Partnership will jointly operate services and manage track operations from 2020 – three years before the current franchise is due to end. The same approach will be taken with the new South Eastern franchise, for which the DfT has now published the invitation to tender, and the future East Midlands franchise.

Critics have described the new East Coast Partnership model as a bailout for Virgin Trains East Coast. Under the current contract, the bulk of its premium payments are due in the final three years of the franchise. However, those figures were based on the delivery of infrastructure works that have now been deferred.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling also indicated that the Government would be looking to reopen more of the regional rail routes that were mothballed in the 1960s as part of the Beeching cuts. The DfT said proposals were already on the table to restore passenger services on suburban lines around Bristol, a freight route through Birmingham, the Okehampton to Exeter line and between Blyth and Ashington in County Durham.

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Not so long ago, rail policy was about how many lines and stations should be closed. Now it’s Dr Beeching in reverse, with the Government looking at where lost lines can be reopened to connect communities and support jobs and housing.

“Today’s announcement is great news for places across the country who were cut off by Dr Beeching, but it is desperately difficult to reopen a rail line. This announcement needs to be backed both with new investment and a commitment to guiding local authorities through the sometimes labyrinthine processes of the railway.

Reshaping franchises

Chris Grayling said: “The last few years have seen massive growth on Britain’s railways. This industry has reversed decades of decline under British Rail, delivered new investment and new trains, and doubled the number of passengers.

“But now we need to build on that success by building a new model for the 2020s and beyond, one more able to deal with the huge rise in passenger numbers and the challenges of an increasingly congested network.

“Rail passengers deserve a more reliable, more efficient service – and I will deliver it by ending the one-size-fits-all approach of franchising and bringing closer together the best of the public and private sector.”

Reacting to proposals for the Great Western franchise beyond 2022, a Great Western Railway (GWR) spokesperson said: “With huge potential revenue growth anticipated in the future and, with further potential new services proposed to grow the business further, it is likely GWR would become the biggest rail franchise in the UK. In this context, we understand the DfT’s desire to explore changes to the shape of the franchise.

“At this stage, this is simply an option the DfT is exploring with stakeholders and no decisions have been taken, and even if a decision is taken to take the proposals forward, it would not actually take place until 2022 at the earliest.”

Within a section of the document titled ‘Skills and training’, the DfT also confirmed plans to create a new National Train Driver Academy which, among other things, will develop a new train driver apprenticeship standard.

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