Bidders will have to come up with innovative and ambitious proposals that will ensure a truly world-class rail network for the North if they want to operate trains there.
Transport Minister Claire Perry issued the edict on August 19, when announcing the companies shortlisted for the next Northern and TransPennine Express (TPE) franchises.
The winners are due to be named in October 2015, with the new contracts starting in February 2016. The Department for Transport says the TPE franchise term is anticipated to be between seven and nine years, and for Northern between eight and ten years, with a possible extension of up to one year in both cases at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Transport.
The three shortlisted for each of the two franchises (see panel) includes subsidiaries of companies ultimately owned by the Dutch, German and French governments. The only all-British bids are for the TPE operation by Stagecoach and FirstGroup.
Govia, the partnership between England’s Go-Ahead and France’s Keolis that was recently awarded the massive Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern mega-franchise (to be run as Govia Thameslink Railway), is now in the frame for the Northern operation. The same partnership, but with a different proportional ownership, will also be seeking to secure the TPE contract.
Given the considerable sums that franchisees have to guarantee as part of the process, and the extensive expertise in large-scale transport operations that has to be evidenced in the pre-qualification process, it is not surprising that the list contains no new entrants to the franchise scene.
Also, the DfT’s documentation said there would be three shortlisted bidders for each franchise, with a fourth place possible if an applicant scored highly in the assessment. This did not happen.
Emphasising the money that is currently being spent on the Northern Hub and electrification projects, the DfT said: “The potential operators will need to demonstrate how they will use these projects to increase capacity in order to tackle crowding and meet future passenger demand; provide faster and more frequent services; and upgrade rolling stock, including proposals to replace Pacer trains on the Northern franchise. Bidders will also need to improve customer service and passenger satisfaction.”
For the successful qualifiers, Abellio Group Chief Executive Jeff Hoogesteger said: “We have been proud to operate the franchise for ten years, and I am determined to bring every effort to the defence of that privilege by preparing a long-term plan that will transform the franchise for passengers.”
Dominic Booth, Abellio UK managing director, added: “Our team has been working hard over the summer on our plans for the next Northern franchise. Today’s news means we can now apply every ounce of our national and international experience to that effort.”
For Arriva, chief executive David Martin said his company “will be creating an innovative, winning bid which draws on our experience in the UK and across mainland Europe”.
Vernon Barker, FirstGroup’s UK Rail managing director, looked forward to “submitting a compelling and value for money bid which meets the needs of taxpayers as well as customers and businesses along the route”.
Go-Ahead Chief Executive David Brown said his company would be “submitting strong bids, working collaboratively with our industry partners and seeking to meet the aspirations of stakeholders”.
Alistair Gordon, chief executive of Keolis UK (Go-Ahead’s partner in two bids), said: “These bids will be another opportunity for the joint venture to demonstrate its expertise and experience of delivering services to meet the needs of local communities and the key stakeholders.”
Stagecoach said it would be “engaging with local people and other stakeholders to develop a package of ambitious and robust proposals that will improve services and deliver better value for money to passengers and taxpayers”.
For Rail North, a body that represents the region’s local authorities, which are seeking a greater, more local voice in the way these services are run, Sir Richard Leese said: “We look forward to working with the bidders to deliver strong franchises for passengers, which reflect the aims and objectives of our long term rail strategy and the predicted growth in patronage.”
Serco, part owner (with Abellio) of the current Northern franchise, had said it would be bidding on its own for Northern, but has not made the cut.