Global operators battle to win £2bn rail franchises

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The operator of Hong Kong's metro system, the French state rail group SNCF, and the UK companies FirstGroup, National Express and Stagecoach are among 13 transport operators that have been shortlisted by the Government to run the £2bn Great Western, Thameslink and Essex Thameside train franchises.

The Rail minister, Theresa Villiers, said the Great Western route from Paddington to Penzance, which is run by FirstGroup and brought in revenues of £679m last year, will be either retained by First or awarded to its rival Arriva, a division of Germany's Deutsche Bahn, or to National Express or Stagecoach. The new franchise will run for 15 years, starting in April 2013. The successful bidder will be announced in December.

The shortlist for Essex Thameside, a route currently run by c2c, part of National Express, includes Abellio, a division of Holland's national rail company, plus FirstGroup, MTR Corporation, which runs the Hong Kong rail network, and National Express. The Department of Transport will name the successful bidder next January; the 15-year contract will start in May 2013.

The Thameslink route from Bedford to Brighton via St Pancras is operated by FirstGroup. Its new contract, lasting only seven years owing to upgrade work on the line, will gradually take over some services run by Go-Ahead, including some of its Southeastern line and all of its Southern franchise.

Those in the frame to take on the route are FirstGroup, Abellio, Stagecoach, MTR and Govia, a joint venture between Go-Ahead and SNCF, the French state-run rail group. That contract will be awarded next May and will begin in September 2013.

Ms Villiers said: "Our reformed approach to franchising will give more flexibility to train operators on how they configure services and run their business. We welcome the strong interest shown in these three competitions by the rail industry."