First Great Western given the green light to run rail services in Bristol area
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 brings weeks of uncertainty, brought about by a major government bungle, to an end. The mistakes surrounding the bidding for the West Coast Mainline led to various competitions the rest of the franchises in the country to be halted.
There were fears that the uncertainty could lead to the long-awaited multi-million improvements to the rail network around Bristol being delayed.
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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 an extension to its 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 for the metro 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 connectivity to London and reduce journey times to the capital by around 20 minutes.
The extension to the contract will take the existing franchise up the end of 2015 by which time the programme of improvement will be well under way.
A spokesman for First said: "This will ensure continuity of service and enable First Great Western to continue to deliver improvements for passengers throughout 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.
"We have also taken significant steps to tackle overcrowding, although there is still much to do on these routes which are among the most congested in the country.
"Today's announcement will also allow us to work closely with the DfT and our industry partners to deliver the much needed new capacity as efficiently and effectively as possible."
One issue that still remains for the government is the cost of ditching the bidding process which is expected to run into millions.
The bidding process had been started last year to award the 15-year franchise only for it to be suspended following the West Coast fiasco, which saw Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Rail Group lose out to FirstGroup.
The controversial decision to axe the bidding process is expected to cost the taxpayer somewhere in the region of £50 million.
The Department of Transport could now be forced to reimburse the other train companies that had bid to run the Great Western service connecting London to Bristol.
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