The UK Department for Transport (DfT) has proposed to split the Great Western rail franchise in order to maximise benefits for passengers and communities over the next decade and beyond.

A public consultation has also been launched, inviting passengers, communities, businesses, local authorities and other interested parties to express their views on how services can be improved, as well as what concerns a future franchise should be expected to prioritise.

"As the franchise continues to grow into the 2020s, we want to ensure every line, station and passenger remains central to the train operator’s strategy."

A new West of England rail franchise could be created under the plan, which would provide long-distance services between London, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, along with local and regional services across the south-west.

UK Rail Minister Paul Maynard said: “We are investing in the biggest modernisation of the railways for over a century.

“Working with GWR, we are bringing the very latest in rail technology to some of the world’s oldest lines, putting passengers first so that they benefit from a transformational programme of upgrades as quickly as possible.

“The benefits of these improvements will be felt right across the franchise area, but as the franchise continues to grow into the 2020s, we want to ensure every line, station and passenger remains central to the train operator’s strategy.”

The Great Western rail network stretches from London to Penzance and from Portsmouth to Worcester, carrying approximately 100 million passengers a year.

Multiple upgrade projects are currently underway across the franchise, including the introduction of brand-new electric and bi-mode trains that are equipped with additional seats, which are expected to ensure more comfortable journeys for travellers.

A variety of timetable changes are also scheduled for 2019 to provide faster and more frequent services for passengers.

In addition, the government has decided to extend the franchise for the network’s current operator, Great Western Railway (GWR), to March 2020.

Commenting on the initiative, independent watchdog Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: “Passengers have welcomed the much-needed investment in this part of the railway, despite some of the challenges this has raised.

“The possibility of a further contract with the current operator would allow for continued stability while electrification is completed and new rolling stock introduced.”