LATE DECEMBER saw the UK Strategic Rail Authority make significant progress with negotiating replacements for several passenger train franchises.

On December 22 SRA named National Express Group as preferred bidder for Greater Anglia. This combines the Anglia and Great Eastern franchises with the West Anglia portion of WAGN, bringing almost all services into London Liverpool Street under a single operator. The franchise will start on April 1 and run for seven years. If performance targets are met, there is provision for a three-year extension.

The same day saw SRA confirm that it had chosen the 'enhanced' package from two options put forward by FirstGroup to integrate Thames Trains and First Great Western services with effect from the December timetable change. The new Thames franchise will only run for two years from April 1, as SRA's Greater Western franchise combining Great Western, Thames and Wessex is due to start in April 2006.

On December 18 FirstGroup and a joint venture of Serco and Ned Railways were shortlisted for SRA's new Northern franchise, which is expected to start towards the end of this year. The franchise will run for a maximum of eight years and nine months.

SRA also prequalified Danish State Railways, FirstGroup, GNER Holdings and a consortium of Go-Ahead Group with Keolis for the Integrated Kent franchise, which is due to start in early 2005. Bids will be called later this year for operating the existing South Eastern network, plus domestic services on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link from 2007.

H February 1 sees the start of the TransPennine Express franchise to operate inter-regional services in northern England. The FirstGroup-Keolis joint venture is using Class 158 and 175 DMUs transferred from Arriva Trains Northern and First North Western pending the delivery of 56 three-car units ordered from Siemens (RG 11.03 p682).