UK: Low-key celebrations were held in London on April 3 to mark the start of three replacement train operating franchises.

FirstGroup has retained the First Great Western branding for its expanded ’Greater Western’ franchise which combines the FGW Link suburban services and the Wessex Trains regional services formerly run by National Express Group with its original Great Western inter-city operation.

However, it has launched a new brand for First Capital Connect, which merges the former Govia Thameslink franchise with NEG’s Great Northern operations orphaned when the West Anglia part of WAGN was transferred into the Greater Anglia grouping now known as One.

Having handed over Thameslink, Govia assumed responsibility for the Integrated Kent Franchise, restoring to private sector operation the South Eastern Trains business run under government control since the Connex franchise was terminated in 2003 (RG 12.03 p771).

Branded Southeastern, the new franchise will initially run to March 31 2012, with an automatic two-year extension if performance targets are met. At the launch, Govia committed to improved performance and a focus on the passenger experience. New services are to be introduced in December to ease overcrowding, with further changes 12 months later to improve performance in the London Bridge area.

From December 2009 Southeastern will operate the CTRL Domestic Services between St Pancras and eastern Kent, using the fleet of Hitachi-built EMUs now on order.

’We are very confident that we are going to meet the obligations of the franchise, and also the financial targets’, said Govia Chief Executive Keith Ludeman. ’We have taken a very strong view of the high speed trains and I don’t think we’re being overly optimistic. It may look unusual to see a traditionally heavily-subsidised railway returning a premium but you are looking at a very different product to the one that exists there now’.