UK: On October 3 the Department for Transport announced it had awarded incumbent First Great Western a new 23-month franchise to operate passenger services between London, southwest England and Wales.

The agreement includes the roll out of free wi-fi for passengers, with priority given to long-distance routes, and local funding has been provided for the refurbishment additional sleeping cars to increase seasonal capacity between London and Cornwall. 'I am also determined that we see further improvements during the lifetime of this contract', said Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. 'More standard class and fewer first class seats on key services and the delivery of more electric trains for the Thames Valley.'

FirstGroup's Great Western franchise had been due to expire in March 2013, but after the collapse of the InterCity West Coast refranchising process in October 2012 the competition for the replacement contract was cancelled pending the subsequent review of franchising policy. As a result, DfT exercised an option to extend FirstGroup's previous franchise by 28 weeks to October 2013.

Operation of Great Western services is being made more complicated by an extensive programme of route modernisation and future electrification, along with the planned delivery of new inter-city trains under the Intercity Express Programme.

The new franchise announced on October 3 was directly awarded and will run until September 20 2015. DfT intends to hold an open competition for a long-term franchise of seven to 10 years in duration which is scheduled to start in July 2016. A further directly-awarded contract would be negotiated with FirstGroup to cover the interim period from September 2015 to July 2016; to comply with EU tendering rules this contract cannot be awarded now.

The contract is the third to be directly awarded by DfT, following negotiations with Virgin Trains at InterCity West Coast and c2c for the Essex Thameside franchise. Negotiations with First Capital Connect are underway.

In September DfT issued invitations to tender for the replacement Essex Thameside and combined Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchises.