CHEAPER fares and more seating on trains are the improvements Swindon’s political and business leaders want to see under the new Great Western operator franchise.
First Great Western, the current operator, decided in May to exercise a legal break point not to take-up the final three years of its franchise agreement.
The firm, which will reportedly save more than £800m in repayments to the Government through the move, said it would rather re-bid for a longer-term contract under the new franchise.
The Department for Transport is encouraging stakeholders to take part in a consultation to identify local issues and priorities, which will form the specification for the next franchise, due to start in April 2013 and operate for up to 15 years.
During the daytime, First Great Western runs four trains per hour through Swindon, to and from London, but the ticket cost per mile from Swindon is very high, and passengers often have to stand during peak times.
Coun Peter Greenhalgh, Swindon Council’s cabinet member for transformation, transport and strategic planning, said: “The main priorities are increasing capacity and reducing costs.
“I believe that the economy of Swindon is being affected by the significant cost of commuting to London, and from 7am onwards the people who join trains heading that way find it difficult to find seats.
“I would like to see longer carriages, increased frequency and reduced costs. It’s one of the most expensive rail operators in Europe.
“And obviously we have a huge number of headquarters based here in Swindon, and the cost here of commuting and the ease of commuting is a factor. And if we had improved rail services at a lower cost, Swindon would become a more attractive place to invest.”
Chris Watts, the former vice chairman of the Swindon branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, was involved in the Fair Fares campaign to reduce the cost of rail travel between Swindon and London.
He said: “The main concern is the pricing. Swindon is disadvantaged compared to other towns in the UK at a similar distance from London, who pay much less for their rail fare.
“We are paying nearly £7,500 a year for a season ticket; at Peterborough and Southampton, it’s £3,000 to £4,000 and that sort of thing has a big impact on what businesses relocate to Swindon.
“The current pricing is affecting the economic regeneration of the town which is a shame because we’re ideally situated on a main line and by a motorway, so we should be in an ideal position to attract these businesses.”
Clair Prosser, policy executive at Swindon Chamber of Commerce, said: “We agree with the thoughts of others with regard to lower fares and more capacity.
“Also with the announcement of electrification, this should provide a more streamlined service. We would also ask for more regular service to and from London in the rush hours and cheaper, larger car parks at the principal stations in the South West network.
“We are also lobbying for direct rail access to Heathrow from the West as this is vital for local economies.”
Swindon Council’s scrutiny committee is scheduled to discuss the new franchise consultation today.