Sunday, 3 February 2013


We live in interesting times, public transport wise at least, with the distinct possibility that the rail franchise system operating system, rather than the trains themselves, is ceasing to operate. The UK Transport secretary has instructed preparations be made for Directly Operated Railways, which is a government owned company, to undertake the minimum preparatory measures necessary to operate train services in the event of a failure to agree the terms of an interim agreement with the existing Franchise operator for the Great Western rail franchise.

This announcement follows the news that the competition to run the Great Western rail franchise between south Wales and London is being scrapped. This follows advice from the Chair of Eurostar Richard Brown who has been investigating the collapse of the West Coast Main Line franchise deal. Back in March (2012) FirstGroup, National Express, Stagecoach, and Arriva (part of Deutsche Bahn) were all short-listed for the Great Western franchise.

The UK Transport Secretary (Patrick McLoughlin) is looking to negotiate an interim franchise of at least two years with current operator FirstGroup. In a Parliamentary statement, the UK Transport Secretary announced that he would begin "a more fundamental review of the franchise proposition, recognising that this is a large and complex franchise which will need to manage service delivery whilst the route is electrified and new rolling stock is introduced."

A parliamentary report into the collapse of the West Coast Main line franchise deal, was not unanimous, several committee members markedly choose not to blame government ministers. The report which scrutinised the scrapping of the £5 billion pound franchise revealed that the decision cost around £50 million pounds of public money.

The Department for Transport has chosen to blame human error for the fiasco and admitting that "Independent experts concluded the collapse of the West Coast franchise programme was caused by a number of failures including inadequate planning and weak governance structure, but not systematic failings in the department.” Despite this the DfT has chosen resume the competition for the Essex Thameside (15 years), Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise (7 years), while suspending the completion for the Great Western franchise.

The collapse of the West Coast Main Line franchise deal which MPs said was the result of "irresponsible decisions" and "major failures" on the part of the DfT and the civil service people may wonder whether the rail franchise system is fit for purpose. Interestingly enough back in July 2009, the then New Labour government stepped in to run a failing private rail franchise - the East Coast Rail Service - which was a polite way to effectively nationalise it, because National Express was in difficulty. National Express also ran the Stanstead Express, East Anglia and c2c - but walked away from running the East Coast Service (which it operated as standalone company, NXEC) yet got to carry on running those bits of the network it could squeeze a profit from?

All of this nonsense is carried on at our expense. Clearly the rail franchise system is no longer working as envisaged when the railways were broken up privatised. It’s time to do something different and to run our railways on a not-for-distributable-profit basis, so that profits would be ring fenced for reinvestment in rail services rather than pumping up the profits and the dividends.

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