South Western Railway (SWR) could lose its franchise just a few years after it took over the line from Stagecoach’s South West Trains.

The company has faced a month long strike which crippled services across the south of England, along with costly upgrades which are not being matched by increased usage.

SWR, a joint venture between FirstGroup and Elizabeth line operator, MTR, took over the services in August 2017 but now faces the threat of losing the franchise.

Not so much as so quick that the paint hasn’t dried on their new trains, as so quick they still have trains waiting to be repainted in the new livery.

South Western Railway’s (SWR’s) recent financial statements have indicated that the franchise is not sustainable in the long term. Apart from the strike and upgrade delays, the company is facing a large bill thanks to a clause in its franchise agreement known as the Central London Employment (CLE) mechanism which while sharing the cost risk during a recession, also means that the franchise pays the DfT additional fees when employment rises, as it has done.The Department for Transport has now issued a notice to the company, and to it’s own state-owned operator to put forward bids to maintain or take-over the contracts.

The one organisation not invited to tender to take over the franchise is TfL, which has been clamouring to operate more national rail services around London. As SWR services include trains all the way out to Devon though, a pure switch of operator would be politically difficult, while chopping up the franchise into pieces for TfL and others to bid for may take far longer to achieve.

Of course, if TfL took over the franchise, then you end up with the rather delicious result that it takes over the railway on the Isle of Wight, which famously uses old London Underground trains.

In the sort term, passengers wont notice any difference, and even if the government transfers the license to its own company, apart from another paint job on the trains, no practical changes are expected.


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  1. Might not even be a new paint job. When LNER took over from Virgin Trains East Coast, they simply removed the Virgin logo and put on the new LNER one.

    • Fraser Hay says:

      That was only due to LNER phasing out the VTEC trains before building their Azuma fleet with the new livery. No point of repainting everything for the fleet to be removed almost immediately. SWR is different depending on the stock.

    • Gary Denness says:

      Most SWR trains still sport South West Train liveries, two years on from the take over….

  2. JP says:

    As a regular user of the SWR long-distance services, I have to say that standards dropped once fantastic First Group and co. took over.
    Except when the strike was on strangely enough when, yes, there was ½ as many trains, but we were treated to very helpful announcements about which platform to get a connecting train to whereversville at the station we were pulling into because the guard happened to be SWR’s regional manager.
    I agreed with the reason for the strike – after all who wants the safety of the travelling public to be placed on the shoulders of the otherwise capable trolley drivers? Now that things are back to normal, I miss the joy of overshooting the platforms at one station presumably because the driver wasn’t aware that we were due to stop there until the lovely lady announcer advised us as such. No-one was hurt and it proved that we’re all human.

    • Gary Denness says:

      It’s fairly unlikely that an awful lot would be different had Stagecoach kept hold of the network. Poor reliability is largely down to Network Rail and the general public, not the train operators. Pricing hasn’t changed on standard tickets. Stagecoach would almost certainly have closed/cut hours of ticket offices. But they would probably still be doing their cheap day return promotions. The strikes would also be unaffected – they are, after all, down to the new suburban trains ordered by Stagecoach themselves…

  3. Deuteronomy Suharto says:

    As my good friend Sir Timothy Dalton taught me, it’s ‘licence’ not ‘license’ if it’s a noun.

  4. Gary Denness says:

    I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that SWR and the OLR have been invited to offer bids. The latter has simply been put on notice to have a plan ready for the network should SWR and the government be unable to reach an agreement on a new short term deal.

    As for TFL, they would just be after the suburban parts of the network, not the whole line. And if SWR does hand back the keys, it would make good sense to carve off the suburban routes and hand them over to TFL. The strikes, after all, are about a new set of trains that have driver operated doors planned for these suburban lines.

    Can you work out a case for SWR guards to strike over trains which do not any longer run on their network? Can you see guards on the Overground network striking over this issue, when they are already DOO? I can’t. I think it would be an easy-ish solution to what has become a pretty intractable dispute.

    • JP says:

      Yes but no but. Chopping off the presumably cash-cow suburban services head from the south western franchise would leave the long distance routes slave to the accountants of this world who would no doubt (and probably have to) increase fares along the lines of the pricing of the GWR routes. As we all know they’re eye-watering and a good reason people use the cheaper SWR option when there’s a choice.
      Either that or we’ll have a southern version of benighted Northern Rail on our hands.
      And is TfL the answer?

    • Gary Denness says:

      SWR mainline fares are pretty much the same as comparable GWR services. They are both priced at the high end.

      Ticket prices can be aided with subsidies. One of the reasons SWT fares were always so expensive is that they received no taxpayer subsidies – one of only two TOCs who didn’t need extra funding.

      Subsidies could be (would be) used to keep mainline fares down.

  5. Mark says:

    Pedants corner: Franchise and Licence are two different things, loosing a (Passenger Operator’s) Licence would result in defaulting on the Franchise but loosing a Franchise would not necessarily resulting in loosing a licence. Franchises are awarded by DfT and Licences by ORR, are two different beasts although you need both (unless you are an Open Access Operator) to operate a Franchise. Pedantry over.

    • JP says:

      Not quite over…
      You need to lose an o from loosing. Forgive me, fellow pedant, but its spelling has been rather loose in recent strings and if comment weren’t passed I’d end up losing the plot even more than, pointedly, I already of, sorry, have.

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