Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by First


  First, which this month changed its title from that of FirstGroup, is one of Britain's foremost public transport companies. It is the UK's largest bus operator, running more than 20 per cent of the UK's services, and with networks in more than 40 towns and cities. It has three rail franchises, First Great Western, First Great Eastern, and First North Western, together forming about 15 per cent of the rail passenger market. First operates the highly-successful Croydon Tramlink network in South London which is running at an annual rate of 16 million passengers a year. In the United States, First is the second-largest school bus operator, and the third-largest in Canada. The company is a major supplier of public transit contracting and management, and the largest private-sector provider of vehicle maintenance in the USA.


  In Wales and the English borders, First has both bus and rail operations.

  First Great Western runs the intercity link between South Wales, Bristol, Swindon, Reading and London Paddington. In North Wales, First North Western provides both local trains and longer-distance services to cities including Manchester and Birmingham. Last May, in line with a franchise commitment, First Great Western doubled the frequency of services between Cardiff and Paddington to half-hourly. The company expects that next year its passengers will benefit from the introduction of a new fleet of 14 Adelante trains, an investment of about £80 million.

  It is deeply disappointing that these new 125 mph trains are likely to be more than 18 months late entering traffic. First North Western's services in North Wales have been transformed by the introduction of 27 new 100 mph trains. However, their introduction to service was heavily delayed, and some are currently being modified to improve reliability.

  First's bus subsidiary based in Swansea has a network of services covering much of South Wales. There are also First bus services in the North East and Chester, and in the Worcestershire and Herefordshire areas.


  The company is totally committed to playing a major and expanding role in the industry. Our ambitions are illustrated by our current franchise bids:

    Wales and Borders—shortlisted

    Thameslink (with Dutch Railways)—shortlisted

    Trans Pennine Express (with Keolis, a subsidiary of the state-owned SNCF network of France)—shortlisted.

  In addition, we are discussing ideas with the Strategic Rail Authority, including service improvements, to extend First Great Western's franchise from 2006 to 2008.

  Given the improvements we have delivered to all three rail franchises, our top commitment to safety, our added experience of running bus and light rail companies, plus our financial strength and ability to secure investment, we believe we are well placed to offer the quality railway the nation deserves.


  First's initial bid for the new Wales and Borders rail franchise was shortlisted by the Strategic Rail Authority earlier this year. News is awaited on when the next stage, production of best and final offers, will be invoked. The initial bid envisaged investment of about £1 billion including new and upgraded stations, reopened lines, improved infrastructure such as track and signalling, and new trains. The proposals were aimed at providing an integrated network in which trains, buses, taxis, cyclists and pedestrians were brought closer together, both physically and by improving customer services such as information and through-ticketing. The goal was to provide convenient door-to-door journeys. Wales and Borders was seen as having a key role in helping to expand social inclusion, by improving transport to and from areas damaged by the decline of traditional industries. In developing its ideas, First worked closely with the National Assembly for Wales, and a wide range of local authorities and rail user groups. The proposals are aligned to many of the projects outlined in the Assembly's 10-year transport plan.

  The principle underpinning our bid is to create not just a much improved railway, but also a quality transport network for Wales in which operators, the National Assembly, local authorities, and other interested parties can combine to pursue compatible goals.

  Our vision for Wales and Borders included creation of three distinctly-branded services, but designed to integrate with one another:


    —  Inter-urban, longer-distance links with 100 mph, air-conditioned trains

    —  Hourly services with up to two trains an hour on key routes

    —  Improved links with Manchester and Birmingham, and between North and South Wales


    —  An integrated national network of rail and bus services

    —  Regular departures, increased frequencies, and reduced journey times

    —  Services targeted at journeys to and from work

    —  Improved connections with First Red Dragon and other transport services

    —  Greatly improved access to stations by car, bicycle, on foot, and for the elderly and mobility-impaired


    —  A modernised and upgraded South Wales commuter network

    —  Higher frequencies, standard service patterns, and better connections

    —  Reduced journey times

    —  Refurbished trains

    —  Development of the Valleys Light Rail system, subject to further feasibility studies

  Infrastructure investment proposals included:

    —  Upgrading the Vale of Glamorgan line between Barry and Bridgend with new stations at Rhoose and Llantwit Major

    —  Upgrading the Ebbw Vale branch with seven new stations

    —  New stations at Caerleon, Newport, and Energlyn, Caerphilly

    —  Expanding capacity at Cardiff Queen Street

    —  Development of Valleys Light Rail system

    —  Passing loop at Dovey Junction, and line speed improvements

    —  Expanding capacity and line speed improvements between Newport and Shrewsbury, on the North Wales coast line, and in West Wales.


  First's mission is to transform travel, backed by the development of integrated solutions. As the result of management changes, the chief operating officer, Dr Mike Mitchell, now has overall responsibility for bus and rail operations in the UK. First Great Western has its own integration manager who is working with bus companies to make it more attractive for passengers to use both forms of transport.

  We believe there is great scope for integration to expand in Wales. We are looking to move bus stops closer to station entrances, and are encouraging local authorities to take other measures to make railheads more accessible to buses.

  Current initiatives in Wales and Borders areas include:

    —  First Great Western's range of add-on bus fares

    —  More bus information at rail stations, including maps

    —  First's support for PTI Wales, an integrated journey information service (First runs one of its call centres)

    —  First North Western and bus operators co-operating to provide through bus-rail tickets between North Wales communities and Manchester

    —  Rail passengers using the national network can buy discounted bus add-on tickets for use in the Chester area

    —  With Cheshire County Council, First is helping to provide a frequent bus link from Chester rail station to the city centre—through tickets are available.

  In the Bristol area, First Great Western has won a Strategic Rail Authority CycleMark award for promoting environmentally-friendly transport by providing more cycle storage racks at Temple Meads station. The new Bristol Parkway station, a Railtrack-First Great Western project, was designed as a transport interchange giving pedestrians, taxis, cars and buses easy and quick access to the railway. At this station and at Tiverton Parkway, the company recently helped the DTLR to carry out studies into rail interchanges.


  The punctuality and reliability of First Great Western trains has been badly affected during the past year largely due to external causes. The company and its customers were victims of months of disruption following the Hatfield crash on the East Coast main line last autumn. In its aftermath, Railtrack imposed thousands of temporary speed restrictions and then began a major programme of track renewals. Apart from journeys being extended, sometimes by several hours, many services were cancelled and replaced by buses. Our passengers suffered, our revenue fell, and our reputation was harmed. In recent months, we have worked hard to restore our performance to pre-Hatfield levels, and have put in place a recovery plan which is now showing encouraging results.

  Among recent measures we have:

    —  Hired extra depot staff to improve train maintenance

    —  Hired more station staff to ensure trains are despatched on time

    —  Changed the timetable to create more recovery time when trains reach their final destination.

  The intensively-used fleet of High Speed Trains, now more than 25 years old, is difficult to maintain. It is being upgraded at a cost of £18 million, to, among other things, improve air conditioning, toilets and vestibules. The power cars are being given a mid-life refurbishment. The short- and medium-challenge is to improve on this momentum so that passengers will regain confidence in us.

  Looking farther ahead, from the start of the summer timetable next May, we plan to introduce some Adelantes, the new 125 mph trains, to South Wales-London services. We are also examining the possibility of running a late-evening train from Cardiff to Paddington from the start of next winter's timetable.

  However, despite our own efforts, more than 70 per cent of the delays to our services can be laid at Railtrack's feet. We run on an increasingly congested railway that cries out for radical investment.

  Failures of signalling systems and other equipment are commonplace, parts of the network have been overwhelmed by severe weather, and there are several locations where capacity is severely limited:

    —  Severn Tunnel

    —  Bristol area

    —  Swindon area

    —  Swindon to Didcot

    —  Reading

    —  Reading to Paddington.

  At present, we are working with the Strategic Rail Authority and Railtrack on several projects. In Severn Tunnel we are seeking the installation of additional signalling to reduce the minimum gaps between trains from seven minutes to four. Apart from increased capacity, this would give improved reliability. We want to see a doubling of track at Filton Junction, Bristol, which indirectly affects services on the South Wales-Paddington main line nearby. We also wish to build a third platform at Bristol Parkway.

  Other factors influence our ability to provide a reliable service. For example, junctions at Cardiff and Newport have slow approach speeds which add to journey times and take up track capacity. In some areas in South Wales and between Swindon and Didcot, track is shared with freight trains. Projected new freight flows from Portishead in Bristol give us concerns because of possible conflicts with our services.

  The Reading area, one of the worst bottlenecks on the rail network, is likely to grow even more congested, and therefore even less reliable, from the summer of 2003 when Virgin Cross Country's service from the South Coast to the North and Scotland is due to double in frequency.

  We have suggested to the Government that train operators should have involvement in the planning and implementation of maintenance work, the creation of the national rail timetable and revisions to the Passenger Service Requirement, which stipulates minimum service levels. By having extra influence, we believe we can help to deliver a 10 per cent increase in capacity on the present infrastructure.


  We have a constructive working relationship with both officers and members of the National Assembly for Wales. We are putting in place arrangements to increase our dialogue with them during the coming months to improve mutual understanding. First Great Western has relatively little direct contact with the UK Government, although we are in regular touch with MPs. We are grateful for the help of local authorities in Wales, welcome their support in making rail a more accessible form of travel, and wish to continue to work closely with them.


  Safety is First's number one priority. First Great Western is the only intercity operator whose entire fleet of High Speed Trains is fitted with the advanced Automatic Train Protection system—ATP—which prevents them passing signals set at danger. ATP is installed along all stretches of track on which the maximum speed is 125 mph, eg London to Bristol. Trains do not run if their ATP equipment is faulty. First Great Western has pioneered a number of safety initiatives, including labels showing passengers how to evacuate a carriage in an emergency, and backed up by public address announcements by train managers. Evacuation procedures were tested when staff and volunteers took part in an exercise using a simulated fire on board a train. (Can we add to this?)

  All First Great Western stations are covered by CCTV monitored at a central control. In North Wales, there are CCTV cameras in each carriage of First North Western's new class 175 trains. Cameras are also fitted on the exteriors, pointing down the track, to help identify and record the actions of trespassers and vandals.

Mike Carroll

Managing Director

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