There’s some exciting train news today, and no, it’s not related to HS2. The Transport Secretary has announced that the franchise for the East Coast Mainline has gone out to tender. Britain’s second busiest railway marked a low point for rail privatisation, when National Express bombed out of the franchise and Labour nationalised the line. Since then it has been under government control and the coalition has delayed throwing it back into the private sector several times.
How have each of the operators fared on the line? Since British Rail was privatised in the early 1990s, the ECML has been run by Great North Eastern Railways (1996 to 2007), National Express East Coast (2007 to 2009) and the government-owned East Coast (2009 to present). According to the Office of Rail Regulation, this is how passengers have rated their services:
GNER suffered two major accidents under its tenure — the Hatfield crash in October 2000 and the Great Heck crash in February 2001 — which gravely affected their services and customer reputation. As you can see, it took GNER a long time to recover, and when another operated started competing them they got into financial trouble and the government withdrew their franchise.
National Express took over the line and managed to improve passenger satisfaction – but they also entered into financial difficulties and quit the franchise. The government’s East Coast has been a financial success, returning £238 million to the Treasury last year, but has had a mixed record with customers as you can see above.
Now that the line is being privatised again, can passengers expect great improvements? Patrick McLoughlin has said the new operator will be handed brand new trains and more infrastructure investment in return for operating 32 services a day from March 2015, increasing to 45 in May 2020.
Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh disagrees, believing that privatising is the wrong priority for the government:
‘East Coast is working well and will have returned £800m to the taxpayer by the end of this financial year. David Cameron should tackle his Government’s cost-of-living crisis and cap rail-fare rises for struggling commuters instead of obsessing about handing East Coast over to the private sector.’
But Creagh does have a point — this is the first major franchising operation since the West Coast Mainline fiasco two years ago. As Labour are keen to point out, the cancelled tendering of the West Coast line cost the taxpayer £50 million, along with some very bad publicity for the government.
The government will therefore want to tread carefully. Three companies — Virgin/Stagecoach, First Group and Keolis/Eurostar — have bid for the East Coast franchise, all of them with previous records in the UK. The winner will be announced in November this year, just six months before the general election. The last thing the coalition wants is another row about running the railways.