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A new franchising model will be brought in, some old routes may be reopened, and more details have been revealed on the break-up of GTR and Great Western as part of the government’s ‘Strategic Vision for Rail,’ released today.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling has used the announcement to detail changes in the franchising system which would “end the operational divide between track and train” by allowing local private partners more control over track as well as stock and services.

There was also more information on reopening old lines which have remained unused since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s in an attempt to ease strain on other services and open new areas for housing and development.

In addition, plans include more information on the news that both GTR and Great Western could be broken into smaller franchises, with confirmation that the DfT intends to split the former, as previously reported by RTM, at the completion of the Thameslink Programme.

Franchising is central to the changes which the government will be consulting on, with Grayling revealing that South Eastern could be the first franchise subject to a ‘joint team’ model, as had been previously indicated back when he first revealed plans for privatising East West Rail.

This will see Network Rail work closely with the operator under an ‘alliance manager’ in an attempt to bring those responsible for track and train closer together and improve performance.

These new partnerships would be supported by regional brands but will allow TOCs more influence over infrastructure projects – as well as introducing some smaller and more locally-focused train companies.

As the transport secretary also indicated this time last year, the East Midlands franchise will also be subject to the new model when the ITT is released in April next year.

Grayling has also confirmed that the brand-new West Coast Partnership will design and operate the first HS2 services to complement West Coast Main Line operations, and added that the DfT will consult on additional destinations for the next CrossCountry franchise.

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), said today’s announcement was a “sensible evolution of the partnership railway.”

“For rail to secure prosperity for Britain in the years ahead, it must change and improve,” he continued. “This is why train and freight companies, Network Rail and the industry’s supply chain have publicly committed to strengthen the economy, improve services for customers, boost the communities we serve and create more jobs.

“It’s right customers and communities are at the heart of the partnership railway. Developing different types of alliances between those running trains and those responsible for the tracks and signalling will allow us to run more services and operate them more punctually.

“Introducing greater competition by creating smaller franchises will ensure customers and the communities we serve are even more the focus of what we do.”

Reopening dormant tracks

The new strategy will also look to reopen a number of lines, including many of those closed in the 1960s during the Beeching cuts.

For example, the government is looking at proposals on lines from Bristol between Portishead and Henbury, as well as Exeter to Okehampton and Bere Alston to Tavistock – both closed to passengers under British Rail.

Plans also include proposals for an Ashington-Blyth-Tyne line, new operations around Birmingham, and four new stations in the West Yorkshire area (Elland, Thorpe Park, White Rose and Leeds Bradford Airport).

All the plans are currently at early stages, with the government expecting to analyse the business cases around these issues from local organisations seeking funding.

Many of these routes are aimed at bringing economic benefits to certain areas – such as new housing developments – and the DfT is hoping this incentive will bring more private investment into the industry.

Citing East West Rail, the rail vision points to the ways local and national businesses can directly benefit from new development, as the government hopes this will become a greater part of funding than it previously has.

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, responded to the news: “Fifty years ago, the railways were in a state of decline, with falling passenger numbers and low investment. Today, our railways could not be more different, with passenger numbers doubling over the last twenty years and freight usage increasing, meaning a more intensely used railway network.

“Now, the issue is one of capacity, which is why we welcome today’s announcement that rail services lost in the Beeching cuts will be reopened. This will help bring old lines back into use, providing more services for passengers, improving customer experience and bringing economic growth, jobs and investment back to towns and cities connected to these disused lines.”

Splitting up franchises

Separation of the services currently covered by the Great Western franchise is still at consultation phase, but the government has confirmed that plans could include the creation of a separate franchise for the West of England.

GTR will also be split in 2021, as Grayling confirmed proposals from earlier this month that the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise will be broken up following the completion of the Thameslink Programme.

The future of the franchise has been set out in more specific detail in other information released today, which sees the DfT open consultation on new plans.

The proposals explain that a new West of England franchise would provide long-distance services between London, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall together with local and regional services across the south-west.

There is also new information on the immediate future of the network, with the government announcing that the current operator, Great Western Railway (GWR), owned by FirstGroup, will have its franchise extended until March 2020 while service upgrades, including new bi-mode and electric trains, are completed. The department will also seek to agree terms for the TOC to continue operating the franchise for a further two years until March 2022, allowing improved services to be fully completed and bedded in the network.

Rail minister Paul Maynard explained: “Working with GWR, we are bringing the very latest in rail technology to some of the world’s oldest lines, putting passengers first so that they benefit from a transformational programme of upgrades as quickly as possible.

“The benefits of these improvements will be felt right across the franchise area. But as the franchise continues to grow into the 2020s, we want to ensure every line, station and passenger remains central to the train operator’s strategy.”

Anthony Smith, CEO of Transport Focus, also welcomed the news: “Passengers have welcomed the much-needed investment in this part of the railway, despite some of the challenges this has raised.

“The possibility of a further contract with the current operator would allow for continued stability while electrification is completed and new rolling stock introduced.

“However, passengers are entitled to ask for improvements that reflect the step change in quality and provision that would be expected from a competed contract. We will be pressing DfT to achieve outcomes that deliver good results for today’s passengers.”

(Top image c. Dominic Lipinski, PA Wire)

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