UK Rail: Franchise update

Commuter misery fills the headlines, but investment is bringing benefits for domestic business rail travel, reports Dave Richardson

It’s been a year of discontent on Britain’s railways, with strikes, cancellations and delays on Southern leading to calls for it to be stripped of its franchise, and allegations that train operating companies are trying to hide the lowest fares from passengers using station ticket machines.

The traveller who books in advance can avoid this scenario, but there’s no doubt that the experience of rail travel varies tremendously depending on the route and the operator. While commuting into London and other big cities can be stressful and expensive, most long-distance operators offer a good working environment, especially if you avoid the busiest trains and can travel first class.

It’s not all bad news…
As a nation we love to moan about our railways, but major improvements are happening up and down the country. The vast majority of train operators are franchised by the UK government, and in competitive tenders when franchises are renewed, the Department for Transport (DfT) lays down strict demands which may include more capacity, new services and improvements to ticketing, station services and wifi provision.

The government is also spending heavily on major projects including Crossrail and the electrification of Great Western and Northern routes, plus a fleet of new Intercity Express trains. In ten years’ time – perhaps – comes High Speed 2 (GTMC), which is calling for a complete rethink of the franchising system.

“We could really do with open access on all main intercity routes, and scrapping the franchising system, which is heavily biased towards the amount of money the government gets paid,” says GTMC chief executive, Paul Wait. “It is well documented just how dreadful some rail operators are, but with so many franchises owned by the same group, where’s the incentive to do better?

“Let’s change the system so it is based not on how much the government is paid but the customer experience, with operators being rewarded according to how they perform. But like Air Passenger Duty, franchise money is an easy touch for the Treasury.”

Train operating companies (TOCs)

BBT takes a look at each operator and what investments they are making. All operators of long-distance scheduled passenger services (except Eurostar) are listed here, with the franchise expiry date in brackets. Not included are local operators C2C, London Overground and Merseyrail.

Arriva Trains Wales
(Franchise expires October 2018)
Owned by: Arriva
Main routes: Most services within Wales, and to Birmingham and Manchester.

A new upgraded service from North Wales to Manchester was introduced last year.

Caledonian Sleeper
(March 2030)
Owned by: Serco
Main routes: Overnight services from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.

It is spending £100 million on 75 new carriages to be introduced from 2018, including en suite bathrooms for first class passengers, cradle seats in standard class and free wifi able to stream films.

Chiltern Railways
(December 2021)
Owned by: Arriva
Main routes: London to Aylesbury, Oxford and Birmingham.

Business Zone – offering first-class space and comfort for a modest supplement – is available on key business trains between Marylebone and Birmingham. A new route to Oxford Parkway opened in late 2015.

(November 2019)
Owned by: Arriva
Main routes: Birmingham to the South West, South coast, Cardiff, Nottingham, Stansted, Manchester, Leeds, the North East and Scotland.

It is the first operator to offer advance tickets within 15 minutes of trains departing, for bookings through Trainline and Evolvi.

East Midlands Trains
(March 2018)
Owned by: Stagecoach
Main routes: London to Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield; Norwich
to Liverpool.

Modest improvements to wifi and better availability of free breakfast in first class have been made in advance of franchise renewal. Electrification and new trains are due by 2023.

Grand Central
(Open Access operator)
Owned by: Arriva
Main routes: London to Bradford, York and Sunderland.

It is the top performing operator in the spring 2016 National Rail Passenger Survey by Transport Focus, with 96 per cent of passengers satisfied against a national average of 80 per cent.

Great Northern
(September 2021)
Owned by: Govia Thameslink Railway, part of the Go-Ahead Group/Keolis joint venture
Main routes: London to Cambridge and King’s Lynn; local services around London.

To be combined with the Southern and Thameslink franchises.

Great Western Railway
(March 2019)
Owned by: Firstgroup
Main routes: London to the West Country, South Wales and Cotswolds; regional services in the South West and Thames Valley.

Electrification of the London to Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and South Wales routes is under way in a £7.5 billion investment by Network Rail, and the franchise may be extended while this is completed. The government is funding a new fleet of Intercity Express electric and bi-modal trains, which will increase capacity by up to 25 per cent and achieve modest journey time reductions from 2017.

Greater Anglia
Owned by: Abellio
Main routes: London-Norwich; Stansted Express; services throughout East Anglia.

Abellio beat off challenges by Firstgroup and National Express to take over the franchise, with the new deal running from October. It will spend £1.4 billion on over 1,000 new British-built carriages being introduced in 2019-20, reducing the fastest London-Norwich journey time to 90 minutes.

Heathrow Express
(non-franchised operator)
Owned by: Heathrow Airport Holdings
Main route: London Paddington to Heathrow airport.

The 15-minute journey time to Heathrow is very popular but, although cheaper advance fares from £5.50 are available, the ‘turn up and go’ fare in the morning peak has increased to £24 (£32 in business class). The Heathrow Connect service will become part of the new Crossrail route through central London in 2018.

Hull Trains
(Open Access operator)
Owned by: Firstgroup
Main route: London to Hull.

New bi-modal trains are to be ordered to use electric power between London and Doncaster, boosting capacity. It is the first operator to introduce onboard real-time passenger information screens.

London Midland
(October 2017)
Owned by: Govia, a joint venture between Go-Ahead and Keolis
Main routes: London to Birmingham and Crewe; Birmingham to Liverpool; local services in West Midlands.

Three bidders are competing for this franchise, which includes some routes shared with Virgin Trains, where it offers lower fares on slower services.

(March 2025)
Owned by: Arriva
Main routes: Local and regional services across the North.

Arriva took over in April this year and will invest £400 million in 281 new air-conditioned carriages. More than 2,000 extra services each week (a 40 per cent increase in capacity) will operate around Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle during the morning rush hour, and a new high-quality Northern Connect service will link major towns by 2019.

(March 2025)
Owned by: Abellio
Main routes: Most services within

Seventy new trains will be phased in by December 2018 on central Scottish routes, including new electric services for Glasgow-Edinburgh and Glasgow/Edinburgh-Stirling from 2017. About £475 million is being invested in renewing or refurbishing the fleet over the next seven years, with higher quality trains being introduced to Aberdeen and Inverness.

(June 2018)
Owned by: Govia, a joint venture between Go-Ahead and Keolis
Main routes: London to Kent, including high-speed services from St Pancras; local services around London.

(September 2021)
Owned by: Govia Thameslink Railway, part of the Go-Ahead Group/Keolis joint venture
Main routes: London to Brighton, Eastbourne and Portsmouth; Gatwick Express; local services around London. To be combined with the Great Northern and Thameslink franchises.

Southern has been the subject of horror stories all summer because of staff shortages, strikes and a decision to cut over 300 trains a day in July. It shares with Southeastern the lowest overall satisfaction rating – 69 per cent – in the spring 2016 National Rail Passenger Survey.

South West Trains
(June 2017)
Owned by: Stagecoach
Main routes: London to the South Coast and Exeter; local services around south-west London.

Firstgroup is bidding to oust Stagecoach on one of the biggest franchises, and whoever wins must increase capacity on key routes, including Waterloo to Reading. An extra 150 carriages start delivery next year.

(September 2021)
Owned by: Govia Thameslink Railway, part of the Go-Ahead Group/Keolis joint venture
Main routes: Bedford to Brighton via Luton airport, central London and Gatwick airport. To be combined with the Great Northern and Southern franchises.

New 12-carriage trains – increasing capacity by 50 per cent – have started on the Bedford-Brighton route, one of the most overcrowded in Britain.

TransPennine Express
(March 2023)
Owned by: Firstgroup and Keolis
Main routes: Liverpool and Manchester airport to Yorkshire and the North East; Manchester airport to Glasgow and Edinburgh; Manchester to Hull and Cleethorpes.

Firstgroup retained the franchise this year and is committed to introducing 44 new trains costing over £400 million, providing 125mph trains to Scotland. Additional services include a new, direct Liverpool to Glasgow link in 2018, while Manchester to Newcastle services will be doubled. All trains will have free wifi.

Virgin Trains
(April 2018)
Owned by: 51 per cent by Virgin, and 49 per cent by Stagecoach
Main routes: London to the West Midlands, North West, North Wales and Scotland; Birmingham to Scotland.

Virgin Trains nearly lost its franchise to Firstgroup in 2012 until errors were discovered in the bidding process. It will soon face stiff competition again but has a formidable record in increasing passenger numbers and satisfaction, and has led the way with mobile ticketing, compensation and a new, free booking tool called Railblazers.

Virgin Trains East Coast
(March 2023)
Owned by: 90 per cent by Stagecoach, and 10 per cent by Virgin
Main routes: London to Peterborough, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Virgin will benefit from the government’s investment in new Intercity Express bi-modal trains from 2018, with 65 new trains increasing capacity by over 12,000 seats. Modest reductions in journey times from May 2019 will see London-Edinburgh in four hours and London-Leeds in two hours, with Middlesbrough, Bradford, Harrogate and Lincoln gaining new services to London.


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