A NEW and much reduced rail franchising schedule published by the Department for Transport appears to concede that franchising in its present form is coming to an end.
In past years, the schedule, first produced in 2013, showed timelines for all present and future franchises, together with the dates when ITTs, awards and franchise handovers could be expected.
It last appeared in that form in July 2017, when almost every contract included generous provisions for possible extensions of up to two years ‘at the discretion of the Secretary of State’.
There was no new version last year, but the latest version has been slimmed down and only now refers to three franchises: East Midlands, South Eastern and Cross Country. There are no longer any timelines nor future dates for changes.
East Midlands will be transferred from Stagecoach to Abellio on 18 August, while South Eastern was extended on 13 June to November at least, just ten days before the contract would have come to an end, leaving the DfT as ‘operator of last resort’. These dates are not shown in the latest franchising ‘schedule’, and although the web page claims that it is possible to see ‘information on each passenger rail franchise for bidders, passengers and stakeholders’ the actual data is limited to the texts of Invitations to Tender for East Midlands and South Eastern, and the prospectus for Cross Country, which had been published in September 2018.
The Cross Country competition had started, but the DfT has placed it on hold until Keith Williams’ Rail Review has been completed later this year.
The DfT says: ‘The Secretary of State for Transport has announced a review of rail that will consider recommendations for reform to ensure the rail system continues to benefit passengers and support the economy.
‘The department has reviewed all ongoing franchise competitions and other live rail projects in the context of the rail review. Due to the unique geographic nature of the Cross Country franchise, which runs from Aberdeen to Penzance and cuts across multiple parts of the railway, awarding this franchise in 2019 could impact on the review’s conclusions. It has therefore been decided that this competition will not proceed.
‘Services will continue to be operated by the existing franchisee with options beyond this to be considered in due course. The department will consider the responses to the Cross Country public consultation in the development of future options for the franchise.
‘All other ongoing franchise competitions and other live rail projects are continuing as planned.’
Keith Williams, who is in charge of the DfT Rail Review, has been signalling for some time that franchising in its present form is almost over. On 26 February this year he told his audience at the Bradshaw lecture: ‘Put bluntly, franchising cannot continue in the way that it is today. It is no longer delivering clear benefits for either taxpayers or farepayers.’