South West Trains: Hong Kong firm MTR to help run rail franchise

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The franchise will run from August for seven years

A Hong Kong-based firm is to help run one of the biggest rail franchises in the UK, the government has announced.

MTR, which operates the Hong Kong Metro, has been awarded the franchise along with First Group to run South West Trains (SWT) for seven years.

Rail union RMT has reacted angrily saying MTR, which will hold a 30% share, “is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers expense”.

Stagecoach currently runs SWT services across south west England.

The firm said it had “submitted a strong bid” but was disappointed to be losing the franchise which it has operated for two decades.

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MTR runs the Hong Kong Metro service

The Department for Transport (DfT) said the new operators would oversee a £1.2bn investment to improve journeys for millions of train passengers.

It said the new franchise would add 22,000 extra seats into London Waterloo on every morning peak and 30,000 extra seats each evening peak.

A fleet of 90 new trains has also been promised, providing more space for passengers on Reading, Windsor and London routes.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said the deal “marks a new era in joined up working between train operators and Network Rail”.

But Mick Cash, RMT General Secretary, said the government had “refused to consider the public sector option for a major rail franchise”.

“RMT is deeply concerned at exactly what this announcement will mean for our members, these crucial rail services and the safety of the travelling public,” he added.

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Passengers said they wanted better reliability, more space to sit and stand and modernised stations

Stagecoach’s chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “We are proud to have operated the network under the South West Trains brand for more than 20 years and we are disappointed that we have been unsuccessful in our bid for the new franchise.”

Independent watchdog Transport Focus said SWT passengers had told them they wanted more reliability, more space to sit and stand and modernised stations.

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O’Toole said they were “delighted” their partnership with MTR had been chosen by the DfT, and promised “tangible improvements” to the franchise.

“Passengers can look forward to new and better trains, more seats and services, quicker journey times, improved stations and more flexible fare options,” he said.

Jeremy Long, from MTR, said: “Together we will deliver a major programme of upgrades, including improvements to both rail services and customer experience, for passengers travelling across the South Western network.”

Analysis – Paul Clifton, BBC South transport correspondent

South West Trains is the only franchise to have remained in the same hands since privatisation twenty one years ago. It is the flagship of the Stagecoach Group.

In August it will change hands. Right in the middle of a massive rebuilding of Waterloo, by far the busiest station in Britain. The timing is awkward. In come First Group, the operator of Great Western, in partnership with Hong Kong-owned MTR, which will also run Crossrail trains.

The new company promises faster journeys, for example shaving eight minutes off the journey between Southampton and London, refurbishing the existing fleet of trains and buying 90 new ones.

This really will be a changing of the guard at Britain’s second biggest franchise – bidders were required to submit options for driver only operation

South West Trains: Hong Kong firm MTR to help run rail franchise

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