It’s almost a case of back to the future as the first holder of the franchise covering the Paddington to West Country and South Wales franchise was known as Great Western Trains.
In readopting one of the oldest names in Britain’s railway history, the operator has made an unashamed bid to try and claim the undoubted inheritance and glamour that the ‘old’ Great Western had. This is made explicit in the press release that accompanied the announcement:
Our aim is to reinstate the ideals of our founder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And deliver a rail service for the 21st Century to Build a Greater West.
Changing from FGW to GWR
In September 2015, FirstGroup started the process of ‘un-branding’ the business by changing the company name from First Great Western to Great Western Railway. This won’t happen overnight, as going back to the name given to us by our illustrious founder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is a huge step that will take time to fully introduce.
‘It’s more than a rebadging exercise. It’s a complete shift in our ethos as a train operator. It means we no longer behave as a franchisee, but as a custodian – responsible for reinvigorating the west by returning the railway to its former glory.
‘FirstGroup began operating the West’s railways in April 2006. The region brings together the former First Great Western, First Great Western Link and Wessex Trains businesses.
‘We know your railway truly belongs to the region it serves and is more important than any holding company. We’re proud to have the chance to bring back Brunel’s original ideals and take them forward into the 21st Century.
‘We know your railway truly belongs to the region it serves and is more important than any holding company. We’re proud to have the chance to bring back Brunel’s original ideals and take them forward into the 21st Century.’
The rebranding is designed to reflect the changed nature of the franchise that the TOC will be operating under for the next franchise period that will run through to April 2019 at the earliest.
GWR managing director Mark Hopwood has said: ‘We will meet the challenge of creating a world-class railway that lives up to its historic name, and we will do that together with you, our customers and our partners. The physical change will not happen overnight, but you will see things change more and more in the coming weeks, months and years. There will however be no change to our commitment to support local communities and to drive forward both the economic and transport agendas in the areas we serve.’
The operator, however, faces a number of challenges. First of all it inherits a complex range of routes that is currently undergoing a multi-million pound investment scheme as the main line is electrified from Paddington through to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. It faces the introduction of the new Hitachi-built express sets that are designed to replace the existing High Speed Trains on the main express services at a time when there are still outstanding disputes with the trade unions over the staffing of these new units. The past months have witnessed First Great Western staff take industrial action over this ongoing dispute and there is currently no evidence that a settlement is imminent.
There is always a risk with rebranding — think Royal Mail to Consignia and quickly back again — and there is potentially a greater danger in trying to evoke past glories. The Great Western Railway ceased to exist in 1948; whilst British Railways (Western Region) seemed to attempt to maintain the old company’s ethos, the financial state of the railways in the 1960s and 1970s meant that many of the memories of the supposed golden age of railway travel are viewed through rose-tinted spectacles.
The existing franchise area dates back to the reorganised franchises set in train by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) in 2003. What became the Great Western franchise was created out of three earlier franchise areas: First Great Western Link (which had been operated as Thames Trains from Privatisation in 1994 until transferred to First Group on 1 April 2004), Wessex Trains (created following the break-up in October 2001 of the earlier Wales & West franchise that taken over operation in October 1996) and First Great Western.
When originally privatised in February 1996, Great Western Trains, as the franchisee was originally known, was owned by a joint venture —Great Western Holdings — that was set by between a of ex-British Rail managers, First Group and the venture capital firm 3i in order to bid for franchises as British Rail’s passenger network was slowly dismembered. Apart from the Great Western franchise, the company also gained the Regional Railways North West franchise. This franchise was split eventually, after having been renamed First North Western, between TransPennine express and Northern.
In March 1998, First Group, which had had originally a 24½% stake in Great Western Holdings — the ex-BR management had held 51% and 3i the remainder — bought out its partners and the business was renamed First Great Western.
In 2003, the SRA decided that the franchises covering western England and centred on Paddington should be unified. There were three shortlisted companies for the newly enlarge franchise: First Group, National Express and Stagecoach. It was eventually announced that First Group had won the franchise and the new franchise took effect from 1 April 2006.
In May 2011 First Great Western announced that it had decided against exercising its option for a further three years beyond March 2013. The argument that First Group put forward was that, with major investment (including electrification) going into the franchise areas, it made sense to offer a longer deal. It was also the case that by not extending the franchise period, First Great Western was no longer liable for the payments to the government for the period of the extension.
With First Group’s decision, the government entered into a new round trying to let the franchise with four short-listed candidates announced in March 2012: Arriva, First Group, National Express and Stagecoach. It was expected that the new franchise would start in April 2013 and run through to 2028. In the event, however, problems resulted in the government announcing an extension to the existing franchise in January 2013, initially to October 2013 and subsequently to September 2015. This date was subsequently further extended to March, and then April, 2019.
The rebranding exercise reflects the changed franchising arrangements from September and will carry the operation through to 2019. During the period, the franchise will oversee the introduction of the electrified services and the new units.