HASLEMERE commuters have welcomed Monday’s announcement that South West Trains will be taken over by rival operator First Group for seven years.

MTR, which operates the Hong Kong Metro, has been awarded the franchise together with First Group, from August.

South West Trains, which is operated by Stagecoach Group, had hoped to continue. Group chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “We are proud to have operated the network under the South West Trains brand for more than 20 years and we are disappointed that we have been unsuccessful in our bid for the new franchise.”

China’s MTR will invest £1.2 billion with 750 new carriages and faster journey times promised.

Haslemere Rail Users’ Group (HRUG) welcomed the news. Secretary Martin Odell said: “We are pleased Stagecoach has lost its franchise, especially as it ignored all pleas for improved rolling stock on our line. We very much welcome First MTR South Western Trains, as MTR is a well-established player in the UK public transport scene. The company has stated there will be four trains per hour between London and Portsmouth and, most significantly, dedicated fast rolling stock.

“We will be seeking an assurance this dedicated rolling stock on our line will be configured with two-plus-two seating, as with the white Class 444 trains, and not the inadequate seating of the blue Class 450 trains.

“I have heard we will get 18, five-car Wessex Electrics Class 442 refurbished carriages for exclusive use on the Portsmouth line by December 2018. We can count this as a real success.

“There are certainly going to be some challenges ahead given the targets to improve reliability, ensure faster services and provide thousands of extra seats over an already creaking infrastructure; hopefully the new alliance with Network Rail will benefit. We also very much welcome the new delay repay compensation, including for delays of 15 minutes or more, and with automatic claims for smart card season tickets.

“However we are concerned about the arrangements for the transition and the service levels from now until the new seven-year franchise starts on August 20.”

The Department for Transport said the new franchise would add 22,000 extra seats into London Waterloo on every morning peak and 30,000 extra seats each evening peak.

Free wi-fi at all stations and on trains is promised and 35 additional weekday and Saturday services between Portsmouth and Waterloo, together with more Sunday services. Bidders were also required to submit options for driver-only operation.

Mr Griffiths thanked SWT employees for their efforts and pledged to deliver a “professional service” and meet its obligations in the franchise’s final months.