IF bookmakers yesterday shortened the odds a little on a Labour victory at the next general election, I shouldn’t be at all surprised. The Government’s announcement of its revised franchising policy for rail passenger services clearly indicated they expect to lose the next election in two years and one month’s time. Re-franchising looks more like a political football than a genuine attempt to seriously improve things for passengers.
Twenty years ago, after MPs had approved the 1993 Bill to break up British Rail and privatise it into many parts, an ambitious franchising programme was drawn up with the intention of getting everything moved into the private sector before another general election. By hanging on to the last possible moment before going to the country in 1997, John Major just managed to achieve the target – and the new Labour administration found it was too late to halt the final stages of privatisation (and never did anything later to reverse it, either, despite its pre-election statements).
Now, after last year’s shambles, the Coalition Government and a Conservative-led Department for Transport have announced a revised franchising programme. And its primary objective is to get the one franchise that is now publicly operated, East Coast, back into the private sector in February 2015, just three months before the deadline for another general election. Only in the three years after then would other franchises be re-awarded.
In some ways, yesterday’s was a clever announcement. By focusing the media’s interest on the plans for East Coast it avoided too much initial attention being paid to the wider implications of the re-franchising plans. These are not so much a re-start of what had been stalled by last year’s shambles over the Intercity West Coast contract, but the start of an entirely new programme – and with some surprising, if not astonishing, extensions proposed to several current contracts, most notably Southeastern’s franchise being extended by no less than five years, initially by 28 weeks and then to 2018!
There was also news of some significant changes to the way some franchises are to be awarded – for example, the combined Southern/Thameslink/West Anglia new franchise will be, initially at least, a form of management contract to handle the merger and the introduction of a new fleet of Thameslink trains (for which, incidentally, a contract with Siemens in Germany has still not been signed). And Great Western, too, is proposed to become a form of management contract in 2016 to cope with electrification and introduction of the new fleet of Intercity Express trains.
Yesterday’s announcement was also cynically timed, made on the day that MPs were packing their bags and heading back to their constituencies for the Easter break, so there was no danger of any serious debate.
But the reality is now starting to sink in around the country, judging from a quick scan of the regional media.
In Kent there appears to be astonishment that Southeastern will be continuing to run that county’s trains for a further five years.
In the West Midlands, the extension of London Midland’s franchise to 2017 was reported to be ‘raising eyebrows’ after many people had complained that the GoAhead/Keolis consortium had not already been stripped of the franchise after last year’s extensive cancellations due a shortage of drivers.
To make matters worse, within 24 hours of the extension being announced London Midland was cancelling trains again – due to a shortage of drivers!
In Scotland, Glasgow’s ‘Herald’ newspaper carried the headline ‘Privatising East Coast line an express route to disaster.’ Its columnist Ian Bell pointed out that private enterprise had twice failed to make a go of running the line, and he added: “According to the figures for 2011/2012, the most recent available, East Coast in contrast posted a £7.1 million profit, up seven per cent on the previous year, while paying a £183.6 million ‘premium’ to the transport department. In other words, there is no serious financial case that can be made against state ownership.”
Directly Operated Railways, the Transport Department’s subsidiary ‘operator of last resort,’ said: “DOR has actively worked to prepare the business for a return to the private sector when the Government decided that the time was right.”
But it also added: “Since 2009, the East Coast business has been transformed. The Company has returned more than £640 million in cash to the taxpayer, achieved record breaking customer satisfaction, and last year delivered the best operational performance on the route since records began in 1999.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Labour and the trade unions were also strongly opposed to the plan to re-franchise East Coast.
Maria Eagle, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, said: “It is completely the wrong decision to focus obsessively on an unnecessary privatization of Intercity services on the East Coast, instead of prioritising getting the existing stalled franchise programme back on track.
“Ministers must be very careful not to mislead the public as they make their case for this misguided sell-off.”
And, certainly, one has to ask what will be the benefits for passengers in the revised programme?
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, in his statement to Parliament yesterday, said: “In rolling out the programme the Department for Transport will work closely with the industry to negotiate further new services and more capacity in all franchising contracts while delivering the best deal for both passengers and tax payers.’”
But I don’t think passengers should expect too much!
When the West Coast franchise was bid for last year, both FirstGroup and Virgin made substantial proposals, including new or additional trains and improved wi-fi systems, for example. But could it be that any such major benefits will not now be realized for anther four years, with only residual ‘cosmetic’ benefits – such as a couple of through trains a day between London and Shrewsbury and London and Blackpool?
If so, that will be pretty poor gain for passengers as a result of a catastrophic administrative cock-up by the Department for Transport.