The next Great Western Franchise is due to run from autumn 2020. However, the Department for Transport consider that the specification and award of a new franchise could be delayed for two years until 2020. The Department has entered into a consultation exercise seeking the views of a broad spectrum of organisations on the future size of the franchise. The consultation is contained in a weighty government document of some 56 pages and ends on 21 February 2018. It can be accessed via www.gov.uk/government/consultation/great-western-rail-franchise.
The document hints that the Department is somewhat concerned at the size of the franchise and hence this consultation on splitting the franchise. The report states one of the major disadvantages of the franchise size is:
‘Scale of financial risk: Annual Great Western franchise revenues will soon be over £1 billion, meaning an increased risk that the scale of financial risk and exposure may be unattractive to prospective franchise bidders, which could reduce the number of potential bidders, resulting in it being more difficult to achieve the best outcomes for passengers and value for money for taxpayers from a franchise competition’
This concern is exacerbated by the fact that Virgin/Stagecoach East Coast has recently handed back the franchise to government amidst scathing comment of a bailout. This will be the second time this has happened and undoubtedly it presents the government with a major embarrassment. The effects of Brexit and the willingness of European companies to invest in Britain’s railways is also lurking in the background.
The Department’s view on the franchise is that it could be split into two, these being:
1. The inter-city network to Bristol, South Wales and the Cotswolds which includes the service to Hereford
2. Long distance services to and within a West of England network.
A summary of the benefits and dis-benefits of both a single and a split franchise are given on pages 23/24 with this accompanying map on page 26 of the consultation report.
The principal response from interested parties in Herefordshire will undoubtedly be to emphasise the importance of the Hereford-London service, especially in respect of the economic and social development of the County and towns such as Ledbury. Further emphasis should be given to the development of the service and the requirement for urgent Network Rail infrastructure works to double the existing line to improve service reliability.
RBfH will be responding in this light, taking into accounts the pros and cons of a split or single franchise. We welcome the views of other parties on this matter.