Earlier this month, the Department for Transport (DfT) officially launched the bidding process for the new West Coast inter-city rail franchise currently operated by Virgin Trains (express services to London from the West Midlands, North West and Scotland for the uninitiated). Currently ongoing is a round of pre-qualification; shortlisted bidders will be announced at the end of March and announcement of the winning bid is expected in December, with the new franchise starting on 1st April 2012 – we’re not fooling. What can we expect from the new franchise?
It’s tempting to say “not a huge amount” – running for a period of 14 years, plus a possible 1 year extension for good behaviour, the end of the franchise is proposed to coincide with the introduction of services on the proposed High Speed 2 line. So it’s essentially more of the same, keeping us ticking over until the high speed scheme from London to Birmingham (and potentially further north to Manchester) comes to fruition. There will be some new trains to play with in the interim – specifically 4 new eleven-coach Pendolino sets and an extra two carriages for 31 of the existing 52 nine-coach Pendolinos – but these have been in the pipeline for so long that it doesn’t seem fair to credit them to the new franchise – or indeed the new Government!
The DfT is currently consulting on what interested parties would like to see in the bids. GMPTE has already got a list of aspirations it would like to see fulfilled – including better facilities at Stockport and Wigan stations, formalising the station inspection regime, giving money to contribute to the Metroshuttle, and helping the introduction of smartcards within the county. There are few aspirations on the timetable front, although it is noted that Wigan could have a better service frequency. One interesting snippet is the possibility of the new franchise making stops at principal local stations on Sunday mornings as a more cost-effective way of improving frequencies – could be interesting watching an 11-coach Pendolino calling at Cheadle Hulme!
(There’s more blue-sky thinking in Network Rail’s West Coast Main Line draft Route Utilisation Strategy – but it’s 122 pages long so not for the faint hearted!)
A forthcoming timetable revision will deliver the capacity to operate an additional hourly express train on the busy fast lines to London Euston, so bidders are being asked to take that into account. We get the feeling that the DfT would be happy with a bid similar to the existing timetable but with hourly Glasgow trains, accelerated to run non-stop between London and Preston. In this scenario the spare path would be filled by a “slow” service to Preston calling at Warrington and Wigan. With the planned electrification to Blackpool, this could be extended to the seaside resort so that it regains its direct service to the capital.
The spare path may also explain why open-access train operators have been busy drumming up counter-proposals. With the new franchise having no protection from competition, there’ve been applications from Alliance Rail and Grand Central to run services towards Blackpool and other selected destinations. It remains to be seen whether either of these offerings will be successful.
Speaking of track access applications, rival franchised operator London Midland has applied to operate an hourly service between Birmingham and Preston, calling at Warrington and Wigan. If given the go ahead, they will divert one of the existing two-per-hour Birmingham – Liverpool services, and then extend their hourly London – Stafford – Stoke-on-Trent – Crewe onwards to Liverpool as a replacement.
[Image credit: “Pendolino” by Mike Knell on Flickr]