New 125mph trains will be introduced on the Sheffield to London route, it has been promised, after the winning operator was announced.
Abellio will take over the East Midlands franchise, which includes the lines from Sheffield to London, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Derby, from August 18 this year and its contract will run until 2027.
The Dutch firm was selected after the current franchise holder Stagecoach, which runs East Midlands Trains, was disqualified from the bidding process by the Department for Transport due to a row over pensions.
The Sheffield-London St Pancras route will benefit from the introduction of modern diesel trains from May next year, it is promised, and timetable changes to speed up journeys will take effect from December 2020.
The Government also says there will be earlier and later trains to and from London, with a more regular evening service between Sheffield and the capital, and brand new 125mph trains will enter service from April 2022.
But Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield South East, said there were ‘lots of questions’ to be answered about the delivery of new trains and the tendering process which saw Abellio end up as the only qualifying bidder.
“There’s a lot of criticism about the whole process, and lots of questions which still need to be answered,” he said.
“I think Stagecoach has run a reasonably good service so it’s worrying that it was disqualified and we ended up with Abellio, which has been very badly criticised for the way it’s run other franchises, as the only bidder.
“We’re promised new trains but the minister couldn’t tell us when they’re going to be delivered, and we don’t even know at this stage whether these trains exist.
“The danger is that this franchise becomes a guinea pig for new trains which haven’t been tested, when we should be getting tried and tested electric trains running on a fully electrified line.”
Andrew Dyson, secretary of the passenger group Railfuture Yorkshire, was more optimistic about what the new deal would mean for passengers.
“We knew there were going to be new trains, as this was specified as part of the bidding process, but it’s welcome this is actually happening,” he said.
“We expected the existing franchise would be extended by another year, so the fact they’re able to get on with it and order the trains means hopefully we will see them in service sooner than we would have otherwise.
“If you look at the delivery of new trains in the UK there are always problems getting them to work so 2022 is probably an ‘at best’ date but I hope they prove me wrong.”
Railfuture East Midlands chairwoman Ariadne Tampion said she was ‘extremely optimistic’ customers would see ‘changes for the better’.
“The existing franchisee is definitely one of the better ones, when you look at passengers’ experiences with the likes of Northern and Southern, but it has some blind spots," she added.
“One particular bugbear has been the idea that everybody wants to go to London and all the other stations are just a source, which can make it hard to go for a night out in other cities because the last train home is too early.”
Refurbished trains are promised on the Liverpool to Norwich route, running via Sheffield and Manchester, but the Liverpool-Nottingham section is set to transfer early in the new franchise to another operator, which Mr Dyson expects will be TransPennine Express.
He said this meant the frequency of services between Sheffield and Nottingham would most likely remain at two trains an hour but he hoped longer trains could be introduced like between Manchester and Sheffield, where they are being doubled in length to six carriages.
Across the franchise, the Government says more than £17 million will be spent improving stations, and passengers have been promised more peak time seats and compensation for delays of over 15 minutes.
Abellio UK, which will operate the franchise as East Midlands Railway, said it will invest £600m upgrading trains and stations, and will work closely with Network Rail, which manages the tracks, to improve services.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling said Abellio would ‘play a major role in building a railway fit for the future’.
The Government is investing more than £1.5bn upgrading the Midland Main Line, which runs between London and Sheffield, and recently announced a ‘root-and-branch’ review of the UK’s railways.
Stagecoach said it had been banned from competing because its preferred pensions scheme was rejected for a ‘higher-risk approach’, but the DfT insisted it had ‘total confidence’ in the bidding process.
Abellio ran the Northern Rail franchise from 2004-2016 in partnership with Serco, and has run the East Anglia franchise, as it is now known, since 2012, and ScotRail since 2015.