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South West trains to be run by Chinese firm MTR and First Group

Image credit: PA Mediapoint

The UK Government has announced that a Chinese company will help operate the South Western rail franchise.

Hong Kong-based firm MTR was chosen to help run the biggest rail franchise in the UK and will collaborate with established British transport company First Group for seven years, starting from August 2017. 

FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole commented: “We are delighted that our partnership with MTR has been selected by the DfT to run the South Western rail franchise, a key part of the country’s railway network which millions of people rely on every day.”

The government said the new operators will be offered a £1.2bn investment to improve transport for the millions of train passengers travelling around the UK.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said: First MTR South Western Trains Limited will use the experience of one of its major shareholders MTR, who operate the busy Hong Kong metro, to deliver smooth and rapid journeys for passengers travelling around Londons suburban network.”

For Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, this is great news for rail passengers in the UK. Grayling said, We are delivering the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century and this franchise will deliver real changes for passengers, who can look forward to modern trains, faster journeys and a more reliable service.

The new partnership should result in the deployment of 90 new trains, as well as 22,000 extra seats into London Waterloo during morning peak-hours and 30,000 during evening peak-hours.

Stagecoach, which has been running the SWT franchise for 20 years, said it was “disappointed” to have been unsuccessful in this year’s bid.

Reactions to the newly announced SWT operators were mixed, with some criticising the government’s decision of handing the bid to a foreign company.

Manuel Cortes, leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, said: However they want to spin it, this governments experiment with rail franchises is a busted flush. They dont deliver better services, they deliver higher fares for passengers who are milked as cash cows by the franchisee.”

He added: “In the week the Tories are triggering Article 50 under the promise of taking back control for Britain, it is a national scandal that they are outsourcing yet another rail franchise to the control of yet another foreign company.

Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, said the RMT is deeply concerned about what the new partnership will mean for its members and for the safety of travellers. 

He said the union is seeking an early meeting with the new operators to try and ensure the future of the SWT workforce, as well as safety and quality of the transport services.

Cash said: Once again the Government have refused to consider the public sector option for a major rail franchise and instead its a foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, which is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers expense.”

MTR is owned by the Hong Kong government and already runs rail services between London Liverpool Street and Shenfield.

Jeremy Long, chief executive of European business at MTR, said: “We look forward to working with FirstGroup to provide a best-in-class travel experience for passengers in London and the South West.”

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