National Express wins Gatwick rail franchise

CHRISTIAN WOLMAR

Transport correspondent

New trains and an increase in services were promised yesterday by National Express, the coach company which has become the new private operator of the Gatwick Express link between the airport and London's Victoria Station.

The coach operator which beat off rival bis from Richard Branson's Virgin group and a joint British Airways-train mangement team to operate the service, will start running the line later in the spring.

It has promised to maintain the 15 minute frequency on the line and plans to extend it from the current schedule of 5.30am to 9.30pm. By next year, National Express says it will run a 15 minute frequency from 5am to midnight, and will also run an hourly service throughout the night on an experimental basis.

National Express has been given a 15 year franchise for the line, subject to providing new trains by the year 1999. Otherwise, the franchise will revert to a seven year deal. Currently the line is operated with locomotives dating back to the 1960s hauling 1970s coaches, but new trains would be electric coach units.

On what is expected to be the only profitable line of the 25 franchises, National Express will pay the Government pounds 4.6m in the first year of operation, rising to pounds 33.6m in the year 2010/1. The operators pay the lowest average track access charges on the whole rail network and do not run any stations. Unlike others, it is possible for the service to be run at a profit.

Fares are likely to be increased in order to meet the financial target of increased payments to the franchising director as, unlike on other lines, they are not subject to regulation. Fares on he competing Network SouthCentral services are controlled and are currently pounds 1.40 cheaper for a single journey between London and the airport.

One disgruntled, rival bidder expressed surprise at the high level of the National Express bid. He said: "I don't believe that's a competitive bid."

National Express declined yesterday to say whether any cuts in the 300 staff would be made. The company is also the preferred bidder to run the Midland Main Line between London St Pancras and Sheffield.

Labour Transport spokesman Brian Wilson said public investment had created a profitable modern route in the Gatwick Express: "There is no advantage to passengers or taxpayers in handing it over to a bus company."

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