Concerns at First Great Western rail franchise delay

First Great Western InterCity 125 train passing though Iver station to Paddington
Image caption The Department for Transport said discussions were "ongoing" over the franchise

Concerns have been raised about the tendering process for Devon and Cornwall's main rail franchise.

Plymouth City Council's leader has written to the transport secretary saying he fears a two-year extension of First Great Western's (FGW) contract will mean a delay to improvements.

He said he wanted to see faster journeys and improved internet access.

FirstGroup and the Department for Transport would only say that discussions are "ongoing".

The FGW franchise includes services from London Paddington to South Wales, the Cotswolds and the West of England.

In his letter to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, Labour councillor Tudor Evans said: "It is my concern that such a short-term franchise being put in place, as a result of the government's decision to stop the franchise process, that the urgently-needed improvements to Plymouth's rail services will not be delivered."

He said the business community regularly complained about the "poor and intermittent wi-fi connectivity on our train services" and a lack of an early morning train from London to Plymouth.

'Incredibly disappointing'

Mr Evans said that because the franchise was only for a short period, with no decision on what would happen at the end of it, he wanted the government to "de-risk" the arrangement.

He added that it had been made clear in the Brown Review into the rail franchises that if short franchises are to be introduced, measures should be put in place to ensure that operators had the incentive to invest in the necessary infrastructure to improve the operation.

"I am therefore looking to the government to assist in the delivery of these improvements within the interim franchise arrangements," Mr Evans said.

A 15-year franchise should have begun earlier this year, but the government's rail industry franchise programme was delayed after the West Coast bidding process had to be abandoned.

Since then, First's tenure on the Paddington route and all branch lines and local services has been continuing but it will end on 12 October.

It is believed FirstGroup will be granted the franchise for a further period of two years and nine months.

The company is now in talks with the government about what sort of service First must provide.

But Tim Jones, from the Devon and Somerset Local Enterprise Partnership, said: "We understand that the government is about to award FirstGroup an extension to their existing contract on what is described as a 'vanilla package', which means that there will be no new investment... which is incredibly disappointing."

Rail union the RMT has urged the government to take the franchise back into public hands.

Brendan Kelly, from the RMT, said: "It's costing the industry around about £1.2bn a year to keep franchises private.

"That money could actually save about 18% off of fares if it was reinvested back into the industry and was used to subsides fares."

FirstGroup is the only commercial candidate being considered to run the service up to 2016, although the government has a fall-back option in the form of the publicly-owned Directly Operated Railways.

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