At this stage of the franchise process, four bidders are in the running for the Wales & Borders Franchise to be awarded in 2018. All four were keen to meet with representatives of the Marches Rail Users Alliance (MRUA) which includes Rail & Bus for Herefordshire (RBfH). The franchise is being administered by Transport for Wales, an arm’s length company of the Welsh Government. Accordingly, during December Chris Clarke (Vice Chairman of MRUA) and myself as chairman of MRUA and RBfH arranged four separate meetings in Hereford.

Who will be the next Wales & Borders operator? Arriva Train Wales northbound service passes the site of the once Woofferton Junction between Leominster & Ludlow.

The four TOCs in the running are:

  1. Abellio Rail Cymru, owned by Dutch Railways. They currently operate the Greater Anglia and Scotrail franchises and have a 50% holding with Serco in the operation of the Merseyrail franchise.
  2. Arriva Rail Wales, owned by Deutsch Bahn who currently operate the Wales & Borders, the Chiltern Railways, the Cross Country and the Northern Rail franchises. They also own the Grand Central open access company and run the Tyne & Wear Metro. They operate London Overground in partnership with the MTR Corporation.
  3. Keolis Amey, 70% owned by SNCF (the French National Railway) and 30% Quebec Deposit & Investment Fund. Keolis operate the Nottingham Express transit trams, the London Docklands Light Railway and has a 30% holding in Govia who operate the Thameslink Southern, South Eastern and the West Midlands (London Midland Trains) franchises.
  4. MTR Corporation (Cymru), owned by the MTR Corporation (Mass Transit Railway). They operate the Hong Kong transport system and the London Crossrail franchise and in partnership with Arriva operate the London Overground (LOROL).

Following the discussions with stakeholders, which includes ourselves, all four will by now have given their outline proposals to Transport for Wales. The final bidding phase of the franchise process will then commence and the shortlist may be reduced. All the companies representatives were keen to point out they wanted to see a massive improvement in the quality of all aspects of the service offered. They wish to give an improved service with new trains providing a good quality service with better station infrastructure. They all stated that the new franchise would not be restricted in its ability to cater for growth and improvements, as is the case with the current franchise.

The MRUA emphasised that the Marches area is in a process of development as stated by the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership who see rail improvements as essential to future economic and social growth. A number of key matters were highlighted by MRUA as needing urgent attention in the new franchise. These are:

  1. The need for adequate and clearly defined channels of representation for the Marches line to the Welsh Government. The line runs mostly in England and yet will be controlled by a Welsh Government on which there is no English representation. Whilst this was not the concern of the bidders they undertook to state our concerns to Transport for Wales. The Train Companies were asked to consider a management structure which included a senior manager at board level directly responsible for the Marches and other cross-border lines with England (see note at end of article).
  2.  The provision of new and higher capacity rolling stock is essential to any programme of improvement on the Marches line.
  3. Service improvements should cater for passenger growth in the Borders and should include as a minimum an hourly all stations service between Cardiff and Manchester with increased frequency at peak periods. Improved connections with West Midlands services at both Shrewsbury & Hereford are considered important as are connections with the Heart of Wales Line at Craven Arms. In the context of service improvements, it was emphasised that the new franchise holder should ensure that sufficient train-crew are employed to operate the service. It was pointed out that this matter is a current problem leading to the cancellation of trains.
  4. Close attention should be paid to improving station infrastructure most stations in the borders are somewhat basic and not a good introduction to travel by train. In this respect, MRUA is preparing a station infrastructure report and all the bidders’ representatives asked for a copy of this which is the final stages of production. MRUA indicated the wish to strengthen links between station and community.
  5. MRUA also pointed out that trains should have clean working toilets available at all times and that the use of on board cleaners be extended throughout the journey. Fares inconsistencies were also highlighted.

All four bidders were receptive to our comments and suggestions but did point out that improvements would not be immediate from commencement in October 2018. The MRUA recognise that most improvements will take a time to introduce but did request that the new franchise document should give clear and firm dates as to a programme for these improvements.

Since the meetings with the bidders the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee has met to debate the transfer of the franchise to the Welsh Government. Significantly in its conclusions and recommendations there appeared the following:

  1. When rail franchising powers transfer to the Welsh Government, this will remove the UK Government from the process. As a result, oversight will switch to the National Assembly for Wales, and Members of Parliament will not have a direct scrutiny role. Whilst Welsh residents and users can raise concerns through their Assembly Member, English residents and those who use the parts of the franchise that are solely in England, will have no such representation.
  2. We (the House of Commons Committee) welcome the approach taken by the Welsh Cabinet Secretary, who said that he would be willing to take up complaints about the rail franchise from English MPs in the same way as he does form Welsh AMs. We therefore recommend that a protocol be established whereby Members of Parliament for English constituencies can write to the Cabinet secretary on behalf of constituents using Wales & Borders rail franchise services in England, with an expectation that they will receive a substantive response within a reasonable time, such as 15 working days. Meanwhile the West Midlands franchise contract award is due in June of this year. There are two bidders: the incumbent London Midland Trains and Abellio Rail. London Midland have stepped up their bid with news of their past and future investment strategy together with updates on station improvements. However, if we are not careful Herefordshire will remain a backwater at the end of the line as the West Midlands Combined Authority has a lot more clout and of course a lot more money to throw at train service improvements. Herefordshire Council is a part of West Midlands Rail Ltd, the organisation set up to administer the franchise in the near future. Let us hope that our representative on the WMR Ltd board is vociferous and knowledgeable enough to make sure Herefordshire gets a fare slice of rail improvements on the Birmingham route.

Article based on notes of meetings prepared by Chris Clarke, Vice Chairman of the Marches Rail Users alliance