Hong Kong metro operator to run one of UK’s biggest rail franchises

The operator of the Hong Kong metro has won a share in a seven-year deal to operate train services into Waterloo Station in the southwest of London. The deal brings together responsibility for infrastructure and trains, the first such arrangement since the privatisation of British Railways in the 1990s.

First MTR South Western Trains is a joint venture between Hong Kong’s MTR and First Group, an Aberdeen-based multinational.

MTR will own 30% of the franchise company and First will own 70%. Together, they have pledged an £1.2bn investment programme, which includes 22,000 extra seats into Waterloo in the morning and 30,000 out in the evening.

The company is also promising a fleet of 90 new trains, the refurbishment of existing rolling stock, faster journeys across the network and more Sunday services.

That is nothing short of a scandal and reinforces the demand for nationalisation of our rail assets for the benefit of the British passenger and taxpayer– Mick Cash, RMT general secretary

FirstGroup tweeted this morning that the first of the new trains would be in operation by December 2020.

The Department for Transport published a map of the planned improvements, also on Twitter. It said there would be 35% more capacity on trains into Waterloo in the morning and 41% more in the evening. It added that there would be 35 additional services each day between Monday and Saturday on the London to Portsmouth route, and that Sunday services would be upgraded to the frequency of weekdays.

First MTR will take over from the Stagecoach transport company. Stagecoach said it had submitted a strong bid and was disappointed to be losing the franchise, which it had held for 20 years.

Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said: "First MTR South Western Trains will deliver the improvements that people tell us they want right across the South Western franchise area, from Bristol and Exeter, to Southampton and Portsmouth, to Reading, Windsor and London."

The Department of Transport’s map of the Southwest’s lines

The decision to bring track and train operations together under the control of a single company effectively returns the railways to where they were before nationalisation in 1948. However, the twist is that most of the "companies" are owned by foreign states.

Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union said the deal would mean about 75% of UK rail routes would soon be operated by state-owned companies, and questioned the logic of relying on other country’s operators to run UK railways.

He said: "That is nothing short of a scandal and reinforces the demand for nationalisation of our rail assets for the benefit of the British passenger and taxpayer. The nonsense is that, with the government triggering article 50 this week, they would be free to ignore EU rail directives that slam a block on public ownership."

"It is, frankly, ludicrous that the Tories are continuing with the ‘any state but the British state’ policy which has plundered our railways for over two decades."

A poll by YouGov in August 2015 found that the British public favoured the re-nationalisation of the railways by 58% to 17%.

Top image: Southwest trains runs services to Portsmouth and Southampton (Icomera)

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