AS THE UK Government eyes plans to privatise this vital link, Sarah Boyack makes the case for proper debate.
Earlier this month I travelled to London with East Coast Mainline. It is a service used by more than 18 million people every year and one which provides a vital link between Edinburgh and London.
On a practical level, the East Coast service stands up well to the alternatives. From Waverley, you can be in central London in around four-and-a-half hours. Compare that with the hassle spent negotiating airport security, flights and airport links and, to be honest, there’s not a lot in it. You get time to sit down and work or relax and it’s better for the environment.
Despite its popularity, however, the East Coast service has had its fair share of troubles over the years. Almost three years have passed since National Express, the then operator of the service, was forced to default on its contract saying it could not afford the franchise payments on its £1.4 billion deal to run the service to 2015.
Three years prior to that, previous operator GNER similarly had to bow out of its contract as its American owners faced their own financial troubles.
In the fallout following the National Express default, the East Coast service was nationalised and operated by the Department for Transport through its subsidiary the East Coast Main Line Company Limited.
Under public ownership the fortunes of East Coast have been turned around. Early changes were made to improve areas of concern identified by passengers, such as the quality of refreshments and cleanliness of toilets. The timetable was re-jigged, faster long-distance services introduced and consistent “clockface” services put in place to improve the service for passengers. At the same time, East Coast has maintained respectable passenger satisfaction results and a trend of improving, if not perfect, punctuality.
Despite the downturn, these improvements have seen passenger numbers continue to grow.
Now, however, the UK Government has decided it wants to turn the service back over to the private sector and last month the Department for Transport launched a consultation seeking views on the terms of the new franchise.
Today, when I attend a consultation event at the Royal British Hotel to discuss the Government’s proposals, I’ll be using the opportunity to call for the service to remain in public ownership or a not-for-profit option which puts passengers first. The consultation states that the goal of the franchise is to improve passenger experience, service reliability and frequency over a ten to 12-year contract period.
Bidders for the franchise will be required to make proposals to improve the overall quality of services for passengers. The consultation suggests this might involve initiatives to improve facilities and services both on-board and in-station.
I am concerned by the parallels between what the consultation is calling for and what previous owners have promised. On taking over the East Coast contract in 2007, National Express boldly spoke of investment in extra services, stations and on-board services. Less than two years later, those ambitions came off the rails.
Central to the UK Government’s approach is the idea that franchise operators should have the commercial freedom and flexibility to develop the East Coast service to meet the needs of passengers. However, I am concerned that there is a fundamental mismatch in commercial and customer considerations.
Above all, people want a service that is quick, reliable, comfortable and delivers value for money. The bottom line for operators is the requirement to achieve the minimum in terms of their contract obligations while maximising the benefits for shareholders.
In its report, Rebuilding Rail, the Transport for Quality of Life group, in association with rail trade unions, sets out an alternative vision for rail. They highlight the widespread concern at the lack of value for money delivered by the current set up; they highlight the fact that Britain has the highest commuter fares in Europe and the role that the current structure of ownership plays in this state of affairs; they debunk the idea that only the private sector can deliver innovation, investment and efficiency.
Of course, a wholesale return to public ownership of railways would be a huge step. However, the experience of other countries in Europe, where fares are cheaper and services are better integrated, demonstrates that it can be done. My colleague Mark Lazarowicz MP has suggested a mutual or cooperative model, where profits would be reinvested back into services.
The consultation on the East Coast franchise and the re-negotiation of ScotRail’s passenger franchise are an opportunity to have this debate and to set out the rail services that we want to see in the future.
• Sarah Boyack is Scottish Labour MSP for Lothian