Britain's chief rail regulator yesterday unveiled a further redrawing of the train franchising map but was immediately accused of not moving fast enough to re-let franchises.
Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, announced a new franchise to cover the west of the country and plans for a new Northern Rail franchise.
He also scrapped an existing agreement with Stagecoach to extend its South West Trains commuter franchise by 20 years and replaced it with a four-year extension which will run until 2007.
The new franchise in the west will cover three existing franchise areas – Great Western Trains, Thames Trains and Wessex Trains. Mr Bowker said the move would help simplify journey planning and improve services for passengers.
But he also acknowledged that the new franchise might not be up and running until 2006, even though FirstGroup, the operator of First Great Western, has already lodged detailed proposals with the SRA to combine its franchise with Thames Trains from 2004 and increase capacity by 40 per cent. The increase would be achieved by running Great Western's longer and faster HST trains on Thames Trains routes.
The plan to create a Greater Anglia franchise, incorporating all services running out of Liverpool Street station in London, has also been delayed by nine months until the new year.
The move to shorten Stagecoach's South West Trains franchise follows a similar decision to trim Go-Ahead's 20-year South Central franchise to seven years and relieve it of responsibility for a £750m upgrade of the line.
Similarly, Stagecoach will no longer be in charge of an ambitious £2bn plan to upgrade South West Trains although it remains committed to introducing a new £1bn fleet of Siemens Desiro trains to replace ageing slam-door stock by 2004.
Mr Bowker also announced that the list of preferred bidders for the news TransPennine Express had been narrowed from three to two – Connex and a joint venture between FirstGroup and the Keolis, an arm of the state-owned French railway SNCF.
This represents a fresh blow to the third bidder, Arriva, which was told in September that it would also lose its Merseyrail franchise when it its re-let – the first time an incumbent operator has failed to reach the preferred bidder stage.
Again it was pointed out, however, that it had taken the SRA 19 months to get this far with the TransPennine franchise and it still had to make a final selection.
"There are 550 people working for the SRA. We have a team of seven working on various franchise proposals and yet we are still waiting to get started," one frustrated rail executive said. "Our people are tearing their hair out at the slowness of the SRA."
As part of a new approach to franchising, Mr Bowker has decided there will be a single operator for all services at major London terminals. This means that South West Trains will operate all domestic services from London's Waterloo station including the Waterloo-Exeter and Reading-Brighton services, which were originally intended to go into the Wessex franchise.
Mr Bowker said there was the potential to adopt a similar approach at Kings Cross and Euston where the dominant train operators are Great North Eastern Railways and Virgin Trains respectively.
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