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UPDATED: Islanders can expect better connections with hovercraft, ferry and mainland train services on Island Line according to First MTR South Western, who have today (Monday) been announced as the winners of the South Western rail franchise.

First MTR South Western Trains Limited will take over the franchise for 7 years from 20th August 2017. This is the first franchise awarded since the Secretary of State set out his vision for the future of the railways in a speech on the 6th December 2016 and marks a new era in joined up working between train operators and Network Rail.

On the Isle of Wight a number of improvements will be made to Island Line, including the aim of running a half-hourly service to meet cross-Solent services thanks to the introduction of a new passing loop. More modern stock and signalling are also expected.

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First MTR South Western say they have an exciting package of proposals to discuss with the Isle of Wight community, but they need further consultation with local stakeholders and Department for Transport (DfT) first.

Other expected improvements include:

  • Improved information and ticketing with through-ticketing to Island Line destinations being available from mainland stations, the website and a mobile app and better information about connecting services
  • Marketing campaigns to encourage customers and tourists to make extra journeys to the Island
  • An annual £50,000 Island Line customer and communities improvement fund to be spent to improve passenger experience and local station environments
  • Working with the Isle of Wight Council and local bodies to develop a business plan and an option for a more sustainable long-term future for the Island Line
  • Pay rise for all staff to meet the Living Wage
  • Closer working with the Isle of Wight Steam Railway

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has today said:

“Following on from the announcement on the start of the South Eastern Franchise consultation, this deal is more great news for rail passengers.

“First MTR South Western Trains Limited will deliver the improvements that people tell us they want right across the South Western franchise area, from Bristol and Exeter, to Southampton, Weymouth, Portsmouth and London.

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“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.”

First MTR South Western Trains Limited will oversee a £1.2 billion investment that will improve journeys for millions of train passengers and provide a boost for the communities served. Other franchise-wide improvements to be expected include:

  • Free Wi-Fi at all stations and on-board mainland trains
  • New smart card, automatically offering the cheapest walk-up single or day return fare
  • New Flexible Season Tickets, offering a discount for passengers travelling fewer than 5 days a week
  • Season, single and return tickets on Smart Cards across all of the franchise
  • New discount for purchasing 12 consecutive monthly season tickets
  • New Student Connect smart ticket for 16-18 year olds, offering one-third off weekly or longer tickets and further term-time discounts for under 16s

FirstGroup Chief Executive Tim O’Toole said:

“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.

“Our successful bid will deliver the tangible improvements that customers and stakeholders have told us they want from this franchise. Passengers can look forward to new and better trains, more seats and services, quicker journey times, improved stations and more flexible fare options.

“The Island Line has a rich history and is unique in rail transport. We look forward to working with local councillors, groups and passengers on its future.”

The aging trains, seen here at Ryde Esplanade

UPDATE @ 13:51 – Campaign group Keep Island Line in Franchise (KILF) have given a cautious welcome to the franchise award.

KILF campaigner David Pugh has today said:

“We welcome the reference to securing a more sustainable long-term future for Island Line, which we can all agree on. However, we must not forget that the DfT’s original intention was to make Island Line a “separate, self-sustaining business”, and it is only when we threatened them with Judicial Review last summer that they backed down on this plan.

“And although Island Line is in the next franchise, its long-term future is still far from certain. We will now redouble our efforts to make the case for it remaining in the wider South Western rail operation for the entire duration of the seven year franchise, and beyond.”

Fellow campaigner, Labour’s Stewart Blackmore added:

“Island Line is a vital route for those communities it serves on the eastern side of the Isle of Wight. The initial indications are that First MTR is willing to work with the Island to find the best way forward for our local train service, but without explicit support (at this stage) from the DfT for investment in the route, it is difficult to see how a long-term solution can be put in place.

“We remain concerned at the emphasis that the DfT has placed on the forthcoming recommendations of Infrastructure Transport Taskforce, given the flawed and prohibitively costly tram proposal already put forward by its chairman, Christopher Garnett. The Government should instead be listening to the democratically-elected Isle of Wight Council, and we hope that on 4th May we will see more councillors elected who support Island Line being retained in the franchise, and invested in through this model.”

Chris Quirk added:

“We look forward to hearing from First MTR about the “exciting package of proposals to discuss with the Isle of Wight community” which they will be consulting on later this year. In particular, we look forward to hearing more about their ideas for using more modern rolling stock and a new passing loop to allow a half hourly timetable to be introduced.

“This sounds like First MTR is prepared to invest in the route (subject to DfT approval), which we believe will be a far more effective model than trying to run it separately as a stand-alone service. We will be encouraging First MTR to support Island Line for the full duration of the franchise and reject any proposal that would see it taken out of their operation or the national rail network.”

KILF is planning to meet with First MTR in the near future, and will keep campaign supporters and the wider public updated on the progress made. Furthermore, after making a presentation to the Taskforce last autumn, KILF will be making an additional submission in the near future, ahead of its report being published in May.

Meanwhile Stagecoach Group, which currently operate Island Line under the South West Trains banner, say they are disappointed that it has been unsuccessful in its bid for the new South Western rail franchise.

Stagecoach Group Chief Executive Martin Griffiths said:

“We are proud to have operated the network under the South West Trains brand for more than 20 years and we are disappointed that we have been unsuccessful in our bid for the new franchise.

“Over the past two decades, we have delivered real improvements for our customers right across the network. That success has been built on fantastic people, detailed knowledge of the business and strong relationships with our stakeholders and railway partners. But we have never thought our job was finished.”

“We believe we submitted a strong bid for the new South Western franchise. It offered a transformation in the travel experience for our customers, more investment to help the railway support the communities and economy of the south-west, as well as a substantial and deliverable financial benefit to taxpayers to help fund better public services.”

“We will be seeking detailed feedback from the Department for Transport on the various elements of our bid.”

“I would like to thank all of our employees and partners who have been involved in delivering our vision for the railway in the south-west over the past two decades as well as those who contributed to our strong bid for the new franchise. I know they share our disappointment in the result. Nevertheless, we will continue to work hard on our part to deliver a professional service and meet our obligations in the final months of our current franchise.”

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