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First, Trenitalia win West Coast Partnership franchise

THE government has awarded the West Coast Partnership to a consortium of FirstGroup and Trenitalia.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps and Keith Williams, chair of the Rail Review, have described the deal as ‘vital to deliver the swift introduction of significant benefits for passengers’. The new contract is also designed to ‘fit with the direction of the Review and to facilitate the implementation of Williams’ recommendations’, according to the DfT.

There have been fresh efforts to avoid the problems with recent franchises, particularly Virgin Trains East Coast, by using a Forecast Revenue Mechanism and annual reviews. FirstGroup said there would be a more appropriate balance of risks and rewards’, but rail unions have criticised the award.

The deal includes operating the first phase of HS2 between London and Birmingham from 2026 until 2031, although that will depend on the results of current investigations into costs. Officially for now, First/Trenitalia is being described as the ‘shadow operator’, and if HS2 goes ahead as planned, the route would be operated as a management contract within the West Coast Partnership.

The contract will start in December this year, replacing the present franchise run by Virgin and Stagecoach, but the first round of major changes can be expected in December 2022, when 263 extra services will be added each week. There will be new destinations, with Intercity West Coast trains calling at Gobowen, Llandudno and Walsall for the first time. Motherwell is also due to become a major calling point for most West Coast Partnership services

The existing fleets will be upgraded. The Pendolinos will be rebuilt internally by 2022 at a headline cost of £117 million, with new standard class seats and more luggage space, as well as new technology for passenger information and 5G-capable wifi. The Voyagers will be dealt with more quickly, and will have been ‘refreshed’ by December 2020, but new trains will then replace them. There will be 23 new trains by December 2022 to replace the ‘unpopular’ Voyagers, while there will be 13 new bi mode sets and 10 new electric multiple units.

The DfT said WCP trains will run on electric power wherever possible, ending the practice of running diesels under the wires and reducing CO2 emissions by 61 per cent.

Stations will also receive attention, with new First Class lounges at Preston, Stockport and Rugby, remodelled ticket offices at Glasgow Central, Preston and Rugby, and upgraded free WIFI at all stations. Other improvements will upgraded cycle storage, bus links and car parking. There will also be 100 charging points for electric vehicles. 

Performance on West Coast has been variable and £20 million will be invested in performance, including the development of joint plans with Network Rail to reduce the disruptive effects of incidents. There will be an Alliance Agreement with Network Rail, while Delay Repay 15 will apply. There will also new ‘flexi’ season tickets and ‘simplified’ fares.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: This award is positive news for passengers, with more services, more direct connections and ambitious plans for a cleaner, greener railway, and also represents a decisive shift towards a new model for rail.

‘It is a Partnership supported by Keith Williams, built with the flexibility to respond to his recommendations and deliver fundamental reform to a flawed system. Meeting Keith last week confirmed our shared determination to deliver a future that puts passengers at the heart of the railways, and get our trains to run on time.’

FirstGroup chief executive Matthew Gregory said: ‘The differences between this contract and more traditional rail franchises were reflected in the terms set out by the DfT, which has resulted in a more appropriate balance of risks and rewards for us as operators. The West Coast Partnership’s first phase allows us to earn returns on the significant investments in services and facilities for passengers but protected by a much improved revenue risk sharing mechanism. This will transition to a management contract in the second phase, ensuring we can really focus on using the respective skills and experience within our joint venture to deliver the desired benefits of the HS2 project for passengers and the country.’

Meanwhile, the rail unions have condemned the award, and repeated their calls for public ownership. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: ‘Instead of following the popular public sector route the Tories are taking yet another gamble on the crucial West Coast lines with one of the dwindling number of private operator consortia left in the game, ‎in a move that RMT believes is doomed to failure and sure to result in yet more rail chaos.’

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