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West and South West

Poor punctuality and high profits
By BBC West Transport Correspondent Malcolm Frith.

The main railway companies to serve the West and South West are First Great Western, Wales and West, and Virgin Cross Country.

In general the train operating companies in the region have a comparatively poor punctuality record, with only Wales and West being above the national average.

Watchdog groups in the region are constantly criticising them. Out of the three companies, Virgin Cross Country has by far the worst record; over 7% lower than that of any of the other rail companies.

However in terms of reliability Virgin Cross Country performs better than the national average, with the other two rail companies performing only slightly worse than the national average.

Passenger safety high on agenda

First Great Western operates services between the West Country, South Wales, the Cotswolds, Bristol Temple Meads and London Paddington. The company is part of the giant First Group who own other rail franchises, bus companies and Bristol International airport. However despite the rail company's relatively poor reliability and punctuality record, it's proving to be a highly profitable concern.

According to the Advanced Railway Research Centre (ARRC) report by Sheffield University, which was commissioned by the BBC, First Great Western has excellent growth prospect with demand for passenger journeys predicted to rise by as much as 60% between now and 2010.

However in the past two years the company has been involved in two of Britain's worst rail crashes. And questions of passenger safety and confidence are now high on the agenda.

For the future the company is spending 40m on the new Class 180 trains which should enter service on the main Inter-City Routes in 2001. In 2006/7 the franchise will come up for renewal and it will be an extremely attractive prospect for potential bidders.

The next big operator in the region is Wales and West, which runs services in South Wales and the West Country, providing a mix of rural services and long distance ones between large towns and cities, such as Bath, Taunton, and Gloucester.

The Wales and West franchise will come up for renewal in five years time. The ARRC report predicts it will make operating losses during the period of its franchise, as subsidies from central government are cut. But despite this, the report claims passenger demand will increase 27% and 53%.

Virgin planning heavy investment

Virgin Cross Country, owned by Richard Branson, operates services from Scotland, the North West and North East through Birmingham to the South West of England.

Here in the region the company has a reasonable reliability record but its time-keeping has come in for much criticism from watchdog groups.

However to improve this Virgin is planning to invest heavily in new trains. It is spending 340m on buying a fleet of 78 trains, including 44 tilting ones. The first of which should enter service in 2001.The company claims these will reduce journey times. For example: it now takes 1hr and 27 minutes from Bristol to Birmingham. The new tilting trains will reduce this by 25 minutes.

The ARRC report suggest that growth for passenger journeys could rise by 91%, although railway analysts predict that the company will fluctuate between "operating profits and losses during its franchise". The franchise comes up for renewal in 2012 and according to ARRC will also be an attractive prospect for potential bidders.

BBC South West will examine the performance of two main train operating companies: Wales and West and First Great Western. Underpinning the South West's rail system is an ageing infrastructure that badly needs updating. Close-up West on Thursday 2 December at 1930 will look at whether Railtrack's spending plans for the rail infrastructure are adequate.