THE STRATEGIC Rail Authority is pushing ahead with awarding of new franchises for passenger train operations in the UK.

On January 17 SRA issued an invitation to tender for the Integrated Kent Franchise to the four bidders who were prequalified in December 2003 (RG 2.04 p63). The ITT was accompanied by a Stakeholder Briefing Document outlining proposed changes to the service pattern resulting from the introduction of domestic services on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link from 2009.

Due to be awarded 'by early autumn', IKF will replace South Eastern Trains, now being operated directly by SRA following the termination of the Connex South Eastern franchise in November 2003. The four contenders are the South Eastern Railways joint venture of DSB and Stagecoach, FirstGroup's First Kent Integrated Railways, the Great South Eastern Railway joint venture of GNER Holdings and Hong Kong's MTR Corp, and the London & South Eastern grouping of Go-Ahead and Keolis.

February 2 is the deadline for expressions of interest in the Greater Western and Thameslink franchises, which are due to start in April 2006. Prequalified bidders are to be selected during the spring; SRA expects to invite tenders in the summer and award the contracts by the end of this year.

Greater Western will merge the present First Great Western, FGW Link and Wessex franchises, and will run for up to 10 years. The proposed service patterns were outlined in a draft Route Utilisation Strategy for the Great Western Main Line, which was published by SRA on January 12. The Thameslink franchise, which will also take over the residual Great Northern services operated by WAGN, will run for up to nine years, but the final three years will depend on progress with the Thameslink 2000 project.