UK: Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly announced on February 26 that the government was taking action to deal with 'unacceptably high' levels of train cancellations at First Great Western, issuing the operator with a Remedial Plan Notice. Cancellations during the second half of 2007 exceeded the threshhold marking a breach of the franchise agreement.
Discussions are underway on the details of the remedial plan, which will see the franchisee recruit extra staff and lease more trains to improve reliability and capacity. Meanwhile, FGW has agreed to implement a package of passenger benefits valued at £29m for a separate breach relating to the under-reporting of ?cancellations. This is in lieu of paying a penalty to the government, which Kelly said would not have 'helped passengers'.
FirstGroup has already implemented management changes at FGW following a period of poor performance and increasing passenger protests since the franchise began in December 2005. Having already taken charge of FGW as Chief Operating Officer, head of First's rail group Andrew Haines admitted that the operator had underestimated the challenges involved in merging the former Great Western inter-city franchise with the FGW Link suburban operations out of London Paddington and the Wessex Trains regional routes.
UK franchise agreements include a cross-default clause, whereby a breach at FGW could have seen First stripped of its other operations - it runs the ScotRail network and the First Capital Connect commuter services in London, and also operates TransPennine services in a joint venture with Keolis. However, DfT seems ?unlikely to exercise this option as the ?requirement to manage directly multiple franchises would strain the resources that it currently has available.
Under the passenger benefits package, FGW has agreed to lease five extra two-car DMUs to boost capacity on the Cardiff - Portsmouth route, invest in passenger information systems, bring forward DMU refurbishment and offer an extra 500 000 discounted tickets. Plans to withdraw buffet cars from some HST sets used on long-distance services have been put on hold pending a review.
Although FGW has accepted liability, many of the problems can be traced to the detailed timetable specifications and rolling stock allocations set by DfT during the refranchising. These were described as unworkable by industry insiders during the bidding process. Haines admitted that 'we are all big boys, and we decided to bid' adding that 'if we are not ambitious, someone else will win'.
- Before entering service, the five additional Class 150 DMUs being leased by First Great Western will be refurbished to match the existing sets which were revamped by Pullman Group in Cardiff.