Martin Hannan: Selling off East Coast is wrong

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As a regular user of the East Coast Main Line service, and having travelled on it twice last week, I cannot contain my anger at the news that this sordid coalition government has deliberately downplayed the success of its own company which runs the franchise.

Next month will see the fourth anniversary of the return to public ownership of a failed privatised railway operator. In what was a disastrous blow to the whole rail privatisation exercise started by the Tories and continued under Labour, National Express would not give any more money to its National Express East Coast subsidiary company and in November 2009, Gordon Brown’s government had to step in.

The then transport minister, Lord Adonis, announced that the East Coast franchise would be effectively re-nationalised and be run by a directly operated railway company known as East Coast, a subsidiary of the Department for Transport.

Members of the coalition government came in but had no choice other than to allow East Coast to be run as a nationalised concern, even though it no doubt pained their privatising souls.

It was tough for East Coast at first. It inherited reduced passenger numbers, which showed how toxic National Express’s tenure had been. Many people sat back and waited for the only nationalised railway operator in Britain to fail spectacularly.

Then something extraordinary happened. East Coast began to do things that other privatised franchises rarely did, such as listening to its passengers. It greatly improved its first class offering and provided wi-fi on board, which led to business people returning in droves. Attractive price offers were brought in, so that people who booked in advance could get serious reductions.

East Coast also began investment in stations, and upgraded its rolling stock so that getting on a train was no longer the chore it had been. What’s more, their staff were nicer – you got the feeling they enjoyed working for East Coast.

Nationalisation was a success, with profits being returned to the public purse, so what is this mean coalition government going to do? Why, sell off the franchise to the highest bidder. Now that it has been turned around, the East Coast main line is to be privatised again.

Because they are so thirled to the concept of privatising everything, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are even playing down the success of the nationalised company – last week, the RMT union managed to obtain a copy of the privatisation prospectus which shows that the coalition does not want East Coast’s success to be ­trumpeted.

For that would never do, would it? You couldn’t have people in a nationalised public service being seen to do the job better than private firms, could you?

The success of East Coast has even made Labour change its tune and the party now wants the directly owned operator to continue.

But for their own ideological ends, the Tories and Lib Dems are going to take something that works and hand it over to greedy capitalists who will take the profits and no doubt rob passengers blind into the bargain.

East Coast has been great for Edinburgh, and for the railways in general. The coalition government should cancel all thoughts of re-privatisation now, but it won’t, because, frankly, its members are too stupid and too nasty to do the honest thing.


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