It is now more than 20 years since the UK’s railways were privatised by the then Conservative government, but since November 2009 one of the franchises has been once again publicly operated – the East Coast Main Line – and its record more than stands up to comparison.
New figures from the Office of the Rail Regulator show that the East Coast Line returned a net surplus of £16 million to the taxpayer last year, the highest of any of the franchises, building on a similarly impressive performance in 2011-12.
That’s a sharp contrast with its recent past as a private franchise. In 2006 the Department for Transport was forced to terminate GNER’s contract and in 2009 it took the line back into public ownership from National Express. Since then the publicly operated company running the line, Directly Operated Railways, has restored stability, not least financial, as well as introducing a new standardised timetable with trains leaving at the same time every hour and extra services. Yet despite this the government in Westminster announced last year that the line would be re-privatised, with the new franchise starting in February 2015 – three months before the next general election in May 2015 so tying the hands of any new government.
The current success of the line has been achieved despite the operator being unable to make long-term plans, but whoever the next operator is will face challenges requiring significant investment. Corners were cut to save money when the line was electrified in the late 1980s and these are often at the root of delays.
Issues such as these should be the Westminster government’s priority, not an obsession with re-privatising the line which flies in the face of what actually happened when it was privately operated and the success of the public sector company in restoring stability since then.
The government has so far refused to allow Directly Operated Railways to bid for the franchise, come what may. It should think again. The interests of passengers, not ideology, should decide who operates the East Coast Line in the coming years.
• Mark Lazarowicz is Labour MP for Edinburgh North & Leith