Stagecoach aims for a more flexible rail franchise

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Stagecoach is seeking to amend the terms of its new 20-year franchise to run South West Trains, the busiest commuter network in the country, to give it greater flexibility.

Under the deal being negotiated with the Strategic Rail Authority there would be more break-points in the franchise to assess the progress SWT has made in achieving passenger growth and capacity targets and improved levels of reliability and punctuality.

It is now more than a year since Stagecoach and the SRA signed a "heads of agreement" on the new SWT franchise involving £1.7bn of investment in new rolling stock and track and station improvements. But a final franchise agreement is yet to be hammered out and industry sources say it could still be months away.

The heads of agreement provided for Stagecoach to replace all 800 of its ageing Mark I slam-door rolling stock on the SWT network and increase peak capacity on most of its surburban routes by 25 per cent by 2004.

The plan involved extensive work at London's Waterloo station to lengthen platforms to accommodate 10-car trains and move the "throat" of the station further out to overcome the severe bottleneck that occurs outside Waterloo during rush hour.

However, Stagecoach is understood to have been concerned about the disruption this would cause to existing services, which have already been affected by the poor reliability of some newer rolling stock introduced recently.

The 800 new carriages being built in Germany by Siemens and ordered through Angel Trains will start entering service from the end of this year as planned. But the proposal now is to lengthen only platforms one to four to handle the 10-car trains and rely on better timetabling of services to achieve the improvement in capacity.

Stephen Byers' decision to place Railtrack in administration is blamed partly for the delay in signing the new SWT franchise. Industry sources say it has become difficult to get the administrators to agree to the additional investment needed to increase track capacity and punctuality. "It is very important that Railtrack comes out of administration if we are to achieve the improvements," said one senior source.

SWT carries 2.5 million passengers a week. The heads of agreement signed last April provided for an improvement in punctuality so that 15 out of 16 trains ran on time each day. There was also a provision to shorten the franchise to 15 years if Stagecoach failed to go-ahead with further capacity schemes involving double-decker trains and even longer platforms at Waterloo able to cope with 16-car trains.