FirstGroup has signed a Direct Award with the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) for the continued operation of the Great Western Railway (GWR).

The previous Direct Award, under which the services are operated, will end on 1 April.

The newly signed agreement will be valid until 31 March 2023 and has an option for extending it by another year at the discretion of the DfT.

The agreement will ensure that the operations continue smoothly and be in conjunction with the Emergency Measures Agreement (EMA) for at least the first six months.

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The company claimed that its experience of managing the operations on the route will be helpful in restoring the service after the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic subsides.

It will also bring about the current transformation to the GWR, which is expected to be the largest change to the network in this generation.

The agreement will offer continuity for customers, employees and other stakeholders. It is also expected to offer a risk and reward balance between FirstGroup and the UK Government.

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The rail franchise will further the improvements it carried out in the past five years and plans to focus on linking local communities and people after the restrictions are lifted after the pandemic.

GWR will also deploy additional trains to increase the capacity on the regional routes in its network.

FirstGroup CEO Matthew Gregory said: “Whilst the immediate focus of GWR is to ensure that key workers, vital to the country’s response to coronavirus, can get to where they need to go, continuity of rail services will also be critical to a restoration of normal life when the present uncertain and difficult situation is overcome.

“In the longer term this new agreement will mean that customers can return to rail as their preferred choice of travel; with more seats, more services, better stations and more flexible ticketing to help reconnect the people and communities we serve.”

In other news, Govia has received the Direct Award from DfT to continue Southeastern operations.

Govia is a subsidiary of the Go Ahead Group and Keolis. The Go Ahead Group holds a 65% stake in Govia while Keolis owns the remaining 35%.

This contract comes into effect on 1 April and will be valid until 16 October 2021. As per the DfT’s discretion, the contract can be extended until 31 March 2022.