Deal signals go-ahead for upgrade of railways
A MAJOR hurdle in the bid to bring electrified trains and improved local rail services to Bristol appears to have been overcome.
The Government has announced that First Great Western will continue to run rail services in Bristol and the surrounding area for the next two years. The announcement ends weeks of uncertainty, brought about by a major government bungle.
The mistakes surrounding the bidding for the West Coast Mainline halted competitions between the rest of the franchises in the country.
There were fears that the uncertainty could lead to the long-awaited multi-million pound improvements to the rail network around Bristol being delayed or shelved.
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But in a clear signal that it wants the work to go ahead the Department for Transport (DfT) said it had scrapped the bidding competition for the Great Western rail franchise after awarding First a two year extension to its current contract.
The DfT last year suspended the competition to re-let the 15-year franchise after the mishandling of the award of the West Coast Main Line contract.
The planned improvements include the £5 billion electrification of the line between Paddington and Temple Meads and the long awaited creation of the Bristol Metro system.
Plans include three new stations, improved services and the reopening of the line to Portishead.
Electrification is being seen as a major boost for Bristol and its economy as it will improve connections to London with journey times to the capital cut by around 20 minutes.
The extension to the contract will take the existing franchise up the end of 2015 by which time the improvements will be well under way.
First Group avoided £800 million in payments to the government by cancelling its previous deal to run the Great Western franchise early.
A First spokesman said: "This will ensure continuity of service and enable First Great Western to continue to deliver improvements for passengers through- out this longer period.
"The extension will facilitate the planned delivery of major projects on the network, in particular electrification and the introduction of associated new rolling stock, as well as significant upgrade work to the line, stations and signalling."
Tim O'Toole, the chief executive of First Group, added: "The extension of First Great Western provides continuity and consistency for our passengers and enables us to continue to deliver considerable improvements to services.
"Everyone has worked tirelessly to enhance services and we have a record of successfully delivering major projects, working together with Government and our industry partners."
Bristol mayor George Ferguson said: "This is certainly good news for Bristol and hopefully it means that we can get on with the work of improving rail services in the area.
"What was needed was a degree of stability and this announcement has removed the uncertainty surrounding the whole rail network."
Weston-super-Mare MP John Penrose, pictured left, said: "Better trains give Weston's commuters an alternative to battling through the misery of Junction 21 each morning, and it's better for the environment too.
"And we need to make sure Weston's direct services to London, which also help our rush-hour commuters to Bristol as well, are still to be saved as I've been promised. So I hope the new franchise will get under way as soon as possible."
"The travelling public will want to know that the promised improvements will be introduced on time, and that other operators will be given a chance to show whether they could do a better job of running the trains than First Group too."