FirstGroup secures cross-border rail route

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole. Picture: Jon Davey
FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole. Picture: Jon Davey
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TRANSPORT operator FirstGroup pledged yesterday to deliver more trains and fewer delays as it was awarded the Trans­Pennine Express rail franchise for another term.

The win will come as a significant boost for the Aberdeen-based firm, which has lost nearly every franchise bid for nine years, including failing to retain ScotRail and the Caledonian Sleeper last year.

FirstGroup said 44 new intercity trains, with 220 new carriages, will be introduced by 2019 – providing an additional 13 million seats a year – as it set a target to reduce delays and cancellations by 27 per cent.

Delayed passengers will receive refunds without the need to claim under a system pioneered by Virgin Trains West Coast.

A direct service from Glasgow to Liverpool will be launched from December 2018, while 16 additional services per day from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Manchester will be running by 2019, with the first in two years’ time.

Hourly Liverpool-Newcastle trains are also due to be extended to Edinburgh from December 2019.

However, these will have to be approved by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the independent regulator.

They could also affect bids, including by FirstGroup, to run Edinburgh-London trains line in competition with Virgin Trains East Coast.

The operator has yet to announce which new trains it will order for the cross-Border services, which will be capable of running on both electric power from overhead lines and diesel motors on non-electrified routes. Services to Glasgow currently operate with electric trains, with diesels serving the Edinburgh route.

FirstGroup, which has operated the TransPennine route since 2004, faced competition from rivals Go-Ahead and Perth-based Stagecoach in the race to secure the franchise.

During the term of the new franchise, which will operate until at least 2023, FirstGroup said more than £500 million will be invested in rail services, leading to an 80 per cent rise in capacity at the busiest times of the day. It will pay the UK Government £400 million over the course of the franchise, which was previously subsidised by taxpayers.

“The new TransPennine Express will increase connections between the largest cities in the north and Scotland by 55 per cent by 2019, keeping their communities and businesses prospering,” the group said.

Chief executive Tim O’Toole added: “Our plans include investment in new and refurbished trains on every part of the network, with millions more seats available, free wi-fi and simpler smart and mobile ticketing, allowing us to build on the success we have had over the past 11 years, in which we have more than doubled passenger journeys on the network.”

The firm said there was space for both its Newcastle-Edinburgh services and its “open access” plans for Edinburgh-London services, but Virgin disagreed.

An ORR decision is thought to be still several months’ away.

Rail minister Claire Perry said she expected the Newcastle-Edinburgh services would go ahead, even though the ORR has yet to receive an application for them.

She said: “The bid completely exceeded what we asked for.

“The deal with First TransPennine Express forms part of the biggest transformation in decades to rail services in the north of England and Scotland, and it will help rebalance the economy and bring the country closer together.”