Major boost for Plymouth rail services will include free WiFi on trains
A LONG-AWAITED new franchise deal could spell a new dawn for rail travel in Plymouth.
Free WiFi on trains and improvements to Plymouth Railway Station are both on the agenda after the Government finally struck a deal with First Great Western.
Council leader Tudor Evans this morning told The Herald the news was an "important" step in Plymouth's quest to improve its ailing transport links.
The news comes after The Herald's OnLine OnRail campaign, which was backed by the city's business community.
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Rail passengers will benefit from improved services, including greater WiFi coverage, on the Great Western network as a result of the new franchise agreement, announced today.
Under the agreement the Government has reached with First Greater Western Ltd (FGW), the company will continue running the franchise to operate trains between London Paddington, the Cotswolds, south Wales and the south west.
The new 23-month franchise will also enable the continued delivery of vital work to upgrade the line in future, including electrification to help deliver faster, more reliable journeys.
A multi-billion pound programme of national rail investment by Network Rail has already seen more than £5bn pumped into projects benefitting passengers on the Great Western network.
These include Crossrail, the electrification of more than 200 miles of track on the Great Western line, and the upgrade of Reading Station.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “The Great Western franchise provides a vital service for thousands of passengers every day and under this deal they will see real benefits.
“For communities like Devon and Cornwall the train is a life-line bringing in business and helping secure the leisure industry the community relies upon.
"This agreement will provide additional sleeper carriages between London and Cornwall securing the future of a key service once under threat.
“We have also secured a commitment to deliver greater WiFi coverage to improve the experience of long distance journeys for passengers.
"But I am also determined that we see further improvements during the lifetime of this contract; more standard class and fewer first class seats on key services and the delivery of more electric trains for the Thames Valley.
“This agreement provides further proof that the Government’s new franchising schedule is on track, delivering value for money for the tax-payer and supporting the ongoing multi-billion pound investment programme in our railways.”
The Government has agreed a 23-month direct award with FGW to run services from London Paddington to west and south west England and south Wales and commuter services into Paddington until September 2015.
A further contract will be negotiated before a long-term franchise is let.
Plymouth City Council leader Councillor Tudor Evans told The Herald: "Obviously it is good news that the active partnership between the council and First Great Western and partners in the business community seems to have resulted in literally everything we asked for being agreed.
"It is great news that WiFi is part of the agreement, and the fact it is free WiFi is even better.
"This is the end of a long campaign of lobbying that Devon and Cornwall partners have been doing to try and secure better connectivity.
"It is clear that First know the business. This is an important announcement."
Butt Cllr Evans added that campaigning for improved transport links to the Plymouth region would not let up.
"I'm going to be seeking a very early meeting with First about the early morning train from Paddington to Plymouth, which is not in the franchise," he said.
Plymouth Sutton and Devonport Tory MP Oliver Colvile MP: “The campaigning seems to have worked. As well as wifi there are a number of other little packages. It’s really positive news.
“All of this is about getting people to invest in the Westcountry and come here, particularly to Plymouth, to do business.
“We, as MPs, have been collectively campaigning for this and it’s a clear example of where the coalition has listened to the people of the south west. I’m delighted.”
Ian Wood, editor of The Herald, said: “This is an important move toward providing Plymouth with a rail service that is fit for purpose.
"Decades of underinvestment and the recent franchising fiasco left this city with the prospect of substandard train services that threaten to undermine our economic development.
"The Herald’s OnLine OnRail campaign was launched to demand action from the Government to make sure progress toward creating a 21st century network were not stalled.
“I welcome today’s announcement but we will continue to campaign to ensure today’s promise is honoured in full in both letter and spirit.
"Much more needs to be done before we can be satisfied that Plymouth has the rail services it needs and it deserves, but this is a good start.”
Lesley Shorrocks, chair of Plymouth Federation of Small Businesses, praised The Herald’s OnLine OnRail campaign.
She said: “This is encouraging news as far as it goes....and well done to the Herald in leading the way with the OnLine OnRail campaign.
“It has been good to see business people and organisations across Plymouth come together in a campaign that has a strong voice to improve our lot.
“Whatever your business, large or small, your access to WiFi when travelling is essential these days, so free WiFi will certainly make doing business easier that’s for sure.
“It’s also important to leisure travellers wanting to get to and from Plymouth like they can to other parts of the country with tourist destinations.”
And she emphasised just how cut of Plymouth is compared to other parts of the country.
She continued: “It’s only when you get into discussions with travellers from the Midlands and the North when you are in London, that you are reminded of how much of a disadvantage we are at here.
“A train journey from York to London is like hopping on and off a bus.
“We need to keep the pressure on and be just as vocal in the future about the improvements we want and deserve to see.”
Among the other benefits secured as part of the announcement by the Department for Transport are:
• two additional sleeper carriages for services between London and Cornwall, to provide additional seasonal capacity for leisure and business passengers - this agreement has been reached with the support of Cornwall Council and Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, which have provided additional funding for the service in recognition of the important role it plays in meeting the needs of business travellers;
• an agreement to fit more trains with free wireless internet services, so that passengers will be able to work and surf while travelling - priority for this upgrade will be given to long-distance trains, providing the benefits to the passengers who need it most;
• the retention of through services from Cornwall, Hereford, Weston-super-Mare, Bedwyn and Pewsey to London; and
• more car parking spaces at Bristol Parkway station by spring 2014.
In addition the Government-funded National Station Improvement Programme will see FGW get £4.6million to upgrade stations most in need across the Great Western network.
The Great Western Main Line is also set to benefit from 57 state-of-the-art intercity express trains as part of the Government’s £5.8 billion Intercity Express Programme from 2017.
Devon and Cornwall Business Council said it had been instrumental on putting pressure on the First Great Western for WiFi.
But chairman Tim Jones admitted he was surprised by the announcement.
He told The Herald: “After detailed discussions with First Group and a number of other partners, I’m delighted that the department of transport have agreed to include this package.
“It means additional trains to Torbay, more carriages and other enhancements – all of which were unexpected.
“But the icing on the cake is the WiFi package.
"A lot of businesses have been saying they want to use the time spent on trains to the best effect.
“We are surprised by the news. From where we were a couple of weeks ago, we were not expecting anything other than the standstill package.”
But he hinted that more investment could follow.
Mr Jones continued: “First Group have proved they have been listening to the business community and now I would expect more.
“They will want to give themselves the best chance of renewing the franchise and so they may want to invest more.
“This is good news, but there may be better news in the coming weeks.”
Dr David Gibson, the chief executive of the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, said: “I am absolutely delighted at this news.
"It will definitely make train journeys more productive for business people. To commit to seven hours of not being able to work is a big decision.
“This will certainly help support the economy. Whether it will boost it, I don’t know.
“But it will make mine and my colleague’s life a lot easier.”
The Department for Transport will continue to work with FGW on a number of other proposals to improve services over the next two years, including:
• delivery of a fleet of electric trains for the Thames Valley routes, which will allow for existing diesel trains to go to other areas of the franchise where they are needed, increasing capacity on those areas of the network;
• increasing the capacity of the existing high speed train fleet, with the addition of new seating in advance of the arrival of the new intercity express trains;
• smart ticketing; and
• the delivery of improvements to services and stations through the life of the direct award.
The contract is the third direct award to be delivered by the Department following the successful negotiations with Virgin Trains in December last year for them to continue running services on the West Coast Main Line and the award made to c2c for the Essex Thameside franchise in May.
The Department has also successfully released on schedule invitations to tender for the Essex Thameside and Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchises last month.
The Government announced its new franchising schedule in March following an independent review by industry expert Richard Brown, which endorsed the Department’s overall franchise strategy.
He also advised staggering competitions to make them more deliverable and the Government has announced a programme of direct awards to deliver this.
Ongoing improvements being delivered across the Great Western franchise by Network Rail also include:
• the redevelopment of Reading Station creating new platforms, better track layout and junction remodelling to remove a major bottleneck, reduce delays and create four extra train paths in each direction per hour;
• the electrification of GWML from Paddington to Bristol, Oxford and Newbury by 2016-17, which will allow the introduction of new intercity express trains. These trains will have 20 per cent more seats and their faster acceleration and deceleration will lead to journey time reductions of up to 22 minutes;
• the creation of a second track on 12 miles of the south Cotswold line to improve overall capacity between Swindon and Standish Junction and provide an enhanced diversionary route for south Wales; and
• proposed improvements to stations working with FGW at Gloucester, Exeter Central, Newton Abbot, Plymouth and Truro, having completed schemes at Newbury, Didcot Parkway, Swindon, Cheltenham, Chippenham and Penzance.
Stephen Gilbert, Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay, said: “Today’s announcement on WiFi is very welcome indeed.
"I have been campaigning for WiFi on the Great Western Line and met with First Group on many occasions to discuss improvements.
“WiFi has been available on trains in many other parts of the country for a while now and there was a real danger our service was falling further behind more modern lines.
“When WiFi comes online it will make the journey more comfortable for commuters and tourists, whilst ensuring business people can make the most of their time spent travelling between the capital and Cornwall.”