The Southeastern rail franchise is set for a major shake-up after being put out to tender by the Government this week.
The franchise, which runs services through Hastings and Battle into Kent and London, was officially put out to potential bidders on Wednesday (November 29) after the Government issued an Invitation to Tender (ITT).
Under the ITT any company which takes on the franchise would be required to make a series of improvements – including running longer, more modern trains with better Wi-Fi connectivity.
Other required improvements include the setting up of an improved delay repay system and the introduction of new smart ticketing systems, including a pilot for pay-as-you-go.
Rail minister Paul Maynard said: “We’ve listened carefully to passengers and have introduced innovative new plans that see smoother, more comfortable journeys for passengers, with new, longer trains and more space.”
As well as the required improvements, potential bidders have also been encouraged to offer additional upgrades as part of a contract. These include commitments to make journey times shorter between Hastings and London Bridge and to connect Hastings to HS1.
While not required to qualify for the tender, the Government has indicated that bidders which offer these extra improvements will score far better than those that don’t.
Controversially, bidders for Southeastern will also be required to adopt a ‘joint team model’, with a single director responsible for running both the train company and the Network Rail team which maintains the tracks.
The Government says this arrangement will see the private rail operator and the publicly-owned Network Rail work closer together and would reduce disruption. However the move has been criticised by the RMT union, which describes it as ‘further privatisation’.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The government’s answer to the fragmented, privatised chaos on rail services in the South East is another dose of fragmentation and privatisation, this time targeting Network Rail and the tracks the trains run on.
“This move would smash the national rail infrastructure to bits, lining it up for privatisation and a return to the lethal days of Railtrack. RMT will fight these dangerous, profit-driven plans.”
Hastings Borough Council has welcomed news that the Southeastern rail franchise has been put out to tender.
Council leader Peter Chowney said: “Although a long, technical document the ITT (invitation to tender) contains some very positive nuggets of information for Hastings. It encourages bidders to develop shorter journey times for peak journeys, specifically mentioning services between Hastings and London Bridge.
“And, very excitingly, it also encourages bidders to fund improvements to the railway infrastructure, using as an example, enabling high speed services to reach Hastings.
“That is exactly what we were hoping for, this is another vital step forward in us achieving ‘game changing’ improvements to our train services. As a result of this, we could see high speed trains running between St Pancras International and Hastings within five years.”
The news has also been welcomed by the St Leonards & Hastings Rail Improvement (SHRIMP) campaign group.
A spokesman for SHRIMP said: “The inclusion of this service requirement is a positive testament to the work that has taken place by Amber Rudd and her team away from the public gaze. It is an enormous step towards creating this connectivity. Direct HS1 services will significantly reduce journey times to and from London, assist in bringing businesses and employment to the town and increase tourism.”
Local MPs Amber Rudd and Huw Merriman have also welcomed the announcement and what it means for their constituents.
Ms Rudd said: “Since my first term as your MP it has been my goal to secure high speed rail services for our towns. They will bring incredible benefits to our communities and open up fantastic new opportunities for local people.
“We are now taking major steps towards delivering this. Last month the Department for Transport committed to examining the changes to the track layout at Ashford International to make possible direct journeys to London St Pancras. This ITT now encourages the franchise operator to run the service after these changes have been made.
“Ahead of this we will also see faster, better and more reliable services to London on the Hastings mainline. This is a plan for future rail services which will deliver real benefits to local passengers and our towns.”
In Parliament this week (Wednesday, November 29), Huw Merriman welcomed the briefing document for the next Southeastern Franchise.
He said: “I am delighted to see that the new franchise document for Southeastern services reflects our local aspiration for Hastings, Rye and Bexhill – that is a new high speed rail service to London and Ashford. This project is something that my colleague Amber Rudd and I have been enthusiastically working towards with local stakeholders, and which she has led, for a number of years.
“The new franchise also commits to deliver faster trains from Battle and surrounding stations on the existing route to London with less station stops in Kent. In addition, for our rural communities, we have the guarantees we asked for that the rural stations will continue to receive at least one service per hour.
“I was encouraged that the reply from the Secretary of State for Transport, in Parliament today, indicated that track changes would be made at Ashford to implement the first stage of bringing High Speed Rail to both Constituencies indicating that this project is ready to make progress.”