Elephant in the carriage

Yesterday, the government decided to withdraw the franchise of National Express, a coach operator, for running long-distance trains on the East Coast Main Line, which despite its name, runs from London to the north-east, including most of Yorkshire, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow (most of its journey is nowhere near the east coast, much as the West Coast Main Line doesn’t run along the west coast for any part of its journey). I am still surprised that this company was ever allowed to run train franchises anyway; it has a conflict of interest as it is the country’s biggest coach operator, actually owns its coaches and doesn’t need a franchise to use the roads. Anyway, it found that it couldn’t keep up its franchise fees and so the government decided to pull its franchise.

Clearly, the government is not exactly warm to the whole idea of train franchises anyway; it opposed the John Major government’s highly unpopular and expensive scheme and forced the former Railtrack back into public ownership when it could. Given that the New Labour government has a history of running a virtual welfare state for companies which run hospitals and schools, the fact that it doesn’t indulge National Express suggests that they don’t much like the whole franchise arrangement anyway, so why don’t they abolish it? It makes a joke of the whole system, with operators and sectors changing every few years, often regardless of whether passengers in the area served are happy with the service or not. (Certainly, this seemed to be the case with the old Anglia Railways when its franchise was merged into the former ‘one’ — meaning ‘operated by National Express’ — area along with the Liverpool Street commuter lines.)

National Express bid for the franchise, and was sold what turned out to be a less lucrative set of train operating rights than they had previously thought, largely because of the economic downturn. However, there is another issue here, which might be called the elephant in the carriage, or perhaps, on the line. This is that despite the fact that the ECML has the fastest trains on the whole network other than on the Channel Tunnel link, it serves several of the poorest parts of England: many of the biggest towns and cities on or near it (Doncaster, Darlington and the Teesside conurbation it serves, Newcastle/Gateshead) are economically depressed former mining centres already hard-hit by Thatcherism and pretty much every recession this century and last. Apart from London and Glasgow, both also served by the West Coast line, there is also not a single urban centre approaching the size of Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool.

So, the ECML is a high-speed, high-tech line mostly serving small, poor cities. Its profitability is always going to be in doubt. The idea that it can be sustained by a public paying its operator’s franchise fees is doubtful; it should be run as a public service.

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