'Poor performing' rail firm promises to do better

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Long-suffering passengers using First Great Western rail services were offered some hope today as the company running the franchise pledged to improve its "poor performance".

Aberdeen-based First Group said it planned to invest an extra £29m on improved customer service and increased capacity.

Some disgruntled passengers using its services held fare strikes in January after being hit with a 4.8% average rise in peak fares.

The company, which runs services to Reading, Bristol, South Wales and the West Country, said today: "The group acknowledges that the performance of FGW has fallen short of its own standards and the expectations of passengers."

First Group said the investment followed discussions with the Department for Transport (DfT).

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, who described the current performance of FGW as "unacceptable", has issued the operator with a remedial notice for cancelling more trains than permitted under the franchise in the second half of 2007.

The DfT has also rapped the company for misreporting its cancellations.

First Great Western will now offer more than 500,000 cheaper tickets to more popular destinations on FGW routes, and double its compensation rates to passengers this year.

Ms Kelly said: "The performance of First Great Western has fallen persistently short of customers' expectations and has been unacceptable to both passengers and Government.

"The measures I have announced today will lead to a reduction in train cancellations and also provide a substantial package of benefits to customers."

First's other rail franchises are First ScotRail, First Capital Connect and First TransPennine Express, making it the UK's largest rail operator.

In the six months to September 30, its rail division made operating profits of £48.2m and last month the company reported a 10 per cent rise in rail revenues between October and December - despite "deep-rooted performance issues" on the First Great Western franchise.

Services have been plagued by ageing rail infrastructure while the franchise had the second-worst punctuality performance in the UK between July and September last year.

First took over the franchise in 2006. It has invested £200 million in services so far, but the additional funding will also go towards lifting capacity by 40% on the Cardiff to Portsmouth route, accelerating the refurbishment of Thames Valley commuter trains, and improving customer information about disrupted services.

The firm will also recruit extra drivers, guards and technicians to boost reliability as well as improving its depot and fleet.

Failure to deliver a better service could lead to the company being stripped of the franchise, the DfT warned.

Chief executive Moir Lockhead said: "This additional investment will directly benefit FGW passengers and underpins our plans to improve the quality and reliability of services we provide."