WELSH INFRASTRUCTURE secretary Ken Skates has suggested that the market is unlikely to provide sufficient compliant rolling stock for the Wales and Borders franchise by 2020.

On 7 March, Mr Skates wrote that key decisions on rolling stock needed to be taken soon, especially in respect of PRM-TSI (disabled access) compliance. In his response to the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee’s report on the future of the franchise, he continued: ‘The combination of a no-growth franchise contract, delays and de-scoping of the electrification programme, and our position in the franchise schedule now makes it very difficult to rely on a market-led response to upcoming compliance pressures.

‘I consider that urgent action needs to be taken in conjunction with the Department for Transport to ensure that the next Wales and Borders franchise is not left behind.’

In 2013, an Assembly committee took evidence from rolling stock leasing companies (ROSCOs) and others in the industry who said that only a quarter of the current fleet was PRM compliant. Another Assembly committee is now conducting an inquiry into the next Wales and Borders franchise, which the Welsh Government is procuring under a special agency agreement with the Department for Transport in the absence of formal devolution of procurement powers.

The Welsh Government told the inquiry that the DfT was due to devolve the powers by May 2016. It now hopes to receive the powers by the end of this year. It said that the delayed transfer of powers had prevented the Welsh Government from engaging with ROSCOs on PRM modifications or starting to acquire its own rolling stock. It is now pressing the DfT for ‘early release’ of powers to deal with ROSCOs.

Porterbrook told the Assembly inquiry it is no longer willing to modify any Pacer units for operation after 2019, because of the DfT’s decision to replace Northern’s Pacers. It said that Wales and Borders’ 72 Class 150/2 vehicles were suitable for modification but this would cost approximately £10 million, which would only be feasible if it was assured that the units would be leased for long enough to repay the investment.

As recently as last October, Welsh Government officials were confident that bidders for the next franchise, due to commence in October 2018, would secure sufficient PRM-compliant rolling stock. However, Olivier André, Porterbrook’s commercial director, told the Assembly committee: ‘If you start doing any work when the franchise starts, it is too late’.

He highlighted the Class 319 Flex bi-mode project, to be tested on Northern next year, as a potential solution for Wales. In written evidence, Porterbrook also suggested that the Class 323 fleet, currently used by London Midland and Northern, could be fitted with diesel engines. ‘These units could be available for alternative franchises in 2021,’ it said.