Rail deal brings stability, wi-fi and new sleeper train carriages
MPs, councils and passenger groups have broadly welcomed an interim extension to the Great Western main line but have also warned that the service should not stand still for two years.
The Government said First Great Western (FGW) will carry on running the service until September 2015 before bidding starts for a new long-term franchise.
The Government's awarding of longer-term rail franchises ran into trouble last year after problems in the tendering process for the West Coast Main Line.
The deal secures an extra two carriages on the sleeper service from Penzance to Paddington, improved wi-fi on long-distance services, and the retention of through trains to London.
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St Ives MP Andrew George, a regular user of the Night Riviera, said the "interim reassurance" about the continuity of the threatened service was helpful but warned that the extension should not be used as an excuse to delay investment decisions over the next two years.
He added: "If the Government wants to show that it is not so obsessed with its HS2 project that it will leave mainline services like ours to Penzance withering on the vine, then we must see further investments."
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced the 23-month extension yesterday. He also promised "further improvements", including "more standard class and fewer first class seats on key services and the delivery of more electric trains for the Thames Valley".
FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole said the deal provides "continuity and consistency", building on the improvements already made over the last franchise period.
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "People will welcome the certainty and stability this extension will bring, but may be disappointed that they have an extended wait for some of the benefits that will accompany the longer franchise when it is finally awarded."
However, the announcement disappointed a Devon passenger group hoping for news on extra services and new trains for a branch line from Exeter to Exmouth.
Tony Day, Chairman of the Avocet Line Rail Users' Group said: "Many of the trains we do have are at the end of their useful life and break down increasingly often.
"This results in overcrowded and sometimes unreliable trains – and now it's just going to get worse and worse for the foreseeable future."
Richard Burningham, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, which represents the branch lines in the counties, said: "The franchise process has taken a massive amount of time and effort – now FGW can put that behind them – we are all determined this two years is not a standstill period."
Cornwall Council welcomed the stability the deal brings and the Local Enterprise Partnership in the Duchy said improved rail links were now "crucial" after easyJet ruled out a direct flight from Newquay to London.