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Chiltern challenge

Plans for capital investment and a good performance record give John Laing confidence for its re-bid on the Chiltern franchise, a medium size area between London and Birmingham. The route operates mainly commuter services to London and offers medium distance alternatives to Virgin and Silverlink intercity routes.

Like most bidders, Laing is circumspect about details for the re-bid though some clues can be gleaned from the operation and investment already made in a new station. Rival bidder - now shortlisted - is Go-Ahead, a franchisee of Thames Trains.

When Laing, the only construction company among current franchisees, bought into the M40 group franchise, it saw it as an opportunity to generate construction opportunities, says Laing Investment director, accountant Alan Chaney. 'But it became clear those would be very limited, particularly because of the short, seven year franchise span. There is not time to recover investment.'

Laing did win some construction work - around £13M worth of double line restoration on a single track section near Princess Risborough. 'But that was done in conjunction with Railtrack, and Laing Construction won the work in the normal way.'

Two years in and the firm began to see Chilterns as a straightforward investment opportunity. 'Passenger numbers were beginning to grow and with road congestion increasing, the projections for the future were growing even more.'

One small project, a £600,000 platform, has been financed, designed, built and project managed by Laing in its M40 capacity, rather than work being done directly by Railtrack.

'Operating a railway is not just about carrying passengers but providing infrastructure that is reliable and lets operators perform well, ' says Chaney, Laing Investments is already demonstrating where it wants to go with a ringfenced design, build and operate project for a new station on the franchise. The £4.2M greenfield construction for a park and ride facility at Warwick Park is on leased Railtrack land and is one of the first schemes tapping into ideas on integrated transport and traffic reduction.

The station will be a stand alone scheme rented by access fee to whoever wins the next franchise. The station is included among the Passenger Service Requirements.

'Ironically we are not building it. Birse has more skill than us at that size of building project and won the job, ' says Chaney.

There will clearly have to be more such investment if the SSRA is to achieve its objectives, he adds.

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