The world of UK rail franchising is complicated. Often the slick branding and coloured liveries that decorate the trains bear little or no relationship to the companies behind them that hold the purse strings – in some cases not even being based in the UK.
In the first of two features, Dave Songer gives an overview of nine of the UK’s wholly-owned franchises that are controlled by just three parent companies, providing a little more detail on the stories behind the trains on the UK rail network.
Lending its name to just one of the four train operating companies (TOC) it wholly owns (but with a stake in two other part-owned rail companies), Arriva’s network covers more than 4,000 miles and calls at 926 stations. The company was bought by German company Deutsche Bahn in 2000.
Northern: Arriva’s most recent acquisition, Northern was taken over from a 12-year joint venture between Serco and Abellio in 2016. Then named Northern Rail, the partnership came to an end after Dutch-owned company Serco announced in June 2014 that it intended to split from the UK arm in order to run the line alone. It was not to be, however, as Serco did not make the final list of bidders put forward by the Department for Transport (DfT) two months later.
Currently caught up in industrial action, workers are striking on Friday 1 September and Monday 4 September – the second such strike related to the proposed introduction of driver-only trains. Mick Cash, the General Secretary of the RMT, the union behind the strike, maintains that the “flagrant disregard for safety” will put passenger and worker safety at risk. Alan Chaplin, Managing Director of Arriva Rail North, said “all offers to discuss every detail on the future responsibilities and training for on-board colleagues” have been rejected by the RMT.
Arriva Train Wales (ATW): With just over a year to run of the 15-year deal, the TOC operates the Wales & Border franchise that links much of Wales, from Newport in the south with Llandudno in the north. One area notable for its poor connections, however, is Pembrokeshire in the west; those wishing to travel the 57 miles from Aberyswyth to Fishguard by train must take a 220-mile detour via Shrewsbury, in England.
As part of the country’s devolution agreement, from next year the Welsh government will become the franchising authority and take over from the DfT. However, ahead of the switch, the Welsh and UK governments are locked in a funding dispute that it’s worried could put off future bidders for the line. The UK government currently receives a £67m rebate from ATW every year, equating to £1bn over the 15-year franchise period, but the contractual agreement will cease to exist from 2018.
Chiltern Railways: Entering the final quarter of a franchise that ends in 2021, the TOC opened the newest line on the UK network last year giving passengers from Oxford an alternative route in to the capital. The £360m Oxford to Marylebone line was part funded by Chiltern Railways (£130m) and Network Rail (£190m) and included the construction of two new stations: Oxford Parkway and Bicester Village.
In a bid to appeal to a wider audience and boost its ridership during the quieter summer holidays, Chiltern Railways introduced a UK-first earlier this month: a kids train carriage that the TOC intended would “provide a space where kids can be kids”, with games, arts and crafts and on-board entertainers. If deemed a success Chiltern Railways said it would use the carriage again on selected services.
CrossCountry: Operating the UK’s longest rail journey, a 775-mile route from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, CrossCountry’s passengers raised its opinion of the TOC in the latest National Rail Passenger Survey. The quarterly report from the independent rail watchdog, Transport Focus, showed a four percent improvement in overall satisfaction for the latest set of figures (Spring 2017), upping its percentage to 89 percent from the same period in the previous year – and six percentage points above the national average.
Formed in 1996 to bid for rail contracts during the privatisation of British Rail, Govia is a joint venture between Go-Ahead and Keolis that now runs the largest UK rail franchise in terms of passengers, staff and fleet, Govia Trameslink Railway (GTR).
Thameslink, Great Northern and Southern: The conglomeration of three lines by the DfT, the Thameslink and Great Northern networks were previously branded as Capital Connect. The parent company, Govia, undertook the Thameslink and Great Northern franchises in 2014, adding Southern (and Gatwick Express) a year later to form GTR.
Gaining the dubious honour of coming last in the Which? Best Train Companies survey, Southern achieved 33% in overall satisfaction, picking up one out of five stars for punctuality, reliability and value for money. Second to last was Thameslink and Great Northern, which fared 13 percent better with 46 percent overall satisfaction. Explaining much of the dissatisfaction among its passengers, all three of the lines operate out of London Bridge, which has been subject to immense change in recent years as part of the Thameslink upgrade. When the station is fully operational it will enable up to 18 trains an hour to pass through the central-London station.
Southeastern: Also massively affected by the Thameslink programme, Southeastern, which operates in the south east of England and connecting the garden of England, Kent, with London and East Sussex, props up the bottom of Which?’s table one percentage point above Thameslink and Great Northern with 47 percent. Interestingly, the figures posted on Transport Focus’s satisfaction table paint a different picture, with its 82 percent rating a 10 percent improvement from the previous year.
With the franchise up for renewal in December next year, one of the agreed official bidders for the line pulled out because taking up the reins would overlap significantly the plans it has to help launch services on the potentially lucrative HS2 line between London and Birmingham. TrenItalia only began operating its first UK franchise in February this year when it took over the current c2c franchise from National Express, but quickly entered the competition to run the Southeastern contract that includes domestic services on the existing HS1 line between St Pancras and Ramsgate.
London Midland: Completing the set of franchises currently run by GTR, London Midland will be removed from the company‘s portfolio in December this year after it failed in its bid to continue operating the franchise. Renamed West Midlands, when the new franchise (serving routes in the West Midlands, Crewe, Liverpool and Birmingham) is up and running in three months’ time it will be handed over to another foreign owner, this time a consortium of Abellio and Japanese companies JR East and Mitsui. The trains were revealed in August and will be rebranded in a gold, purple, white and grey livery.
London Midland was in the news this August after it introduced enforcement of antisocial behaviour for passengers contravening railway bylaws. The TOC has taken the action following complaints from passengers and will focus mainly on customers putting their feet on seats or smoking e-cigarettes. The cautions, which could rise to a court appearance, also cover riding bikes on train platforms. Head of revenue protection and security at London Midland, Darren Hanley, said there is “a strong link between low levels of antisocial behaviour and ticketless travel.”
The third of our rundown of companies with more than one TOC under their control, FirstGroup is the only British company in the list, Operating out of Aberdeen, its two TOCs, TansPennine Express and Great Western Railway cover swathes of the UK, including Scotland, Yorkshire and the North West, through the Midlands and the South West.
TransPennine Express: Dropping the First from the beginning of its name in 2016 when FirstGroup assumed complete ownership of the franchise, previously running it with Keolis, The latest TransPennine Express (TPE) deal will run until 2023 and includes 19 stations in town and cities including Manchester, Warrington, Brough and Stockport.
TPE will be introducing a fleet of completely refurbished trains on its network that will enter service on its Cleethorpes to Manchester route, as part of a £32m takeover. The Class 185 upgrades, which are being carried out with the help of Siemens and Eversholt Rail, will be complete in 2018 and will give customers access to bigger tables, USB and power points and with new seating.
Great Western Railway: With three years left on its existing contract, Great Western Railway’s (GWR) line that connects London Paddington with Penzance in Cornwall will soon be receiving a brand new fleet of Class 800 trains from Hitachi Rail Europe. Built in the train builder’s Newton Aycliffe plant in Country Durham, the 36 trains will be decorated in a royal green livery and logo that nods to its Brunel years. They received their maiden voyage to the South West in June and will enter service next month in October, when they will be known as the Intercity Express Trains (IET).
To overcome the challenges thrown up by the route along the south coast, which were brought to a standstill in 2014 when the track in Dawlish was left suspended in the air after storms, GWR announced last month that a design even the great Islamabad Kingdom Brunel would have been pleased with. Owing to the sea water thrown onto the trains, the IET has a simple design update that prevents water that previously collected on the roof, preventing it from reaching the train’s working parts and damaging them.
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