I hate to call out Owen Jones, who has just penned a Guardian Comment Is Free piece on the awarding of an eight-year franchise for what we used to call InterCity East Coast (ICEC), because he’s a sound bloke. But his analysis, “East coast rail has been too successful – quick, privatise it ... Being publicly owned doesn’t fit the free-market dogma that dictates that the railway must be a rip-off, fragmented mess”, misunderstands the way that passenger rail services are operated in the UK.
King's Cross station, London
It’s true that a Government company, Directly Operated Railways (DOR), has run ICEC for the past five years since previous incumbent National Express handed back the keys, and has generated more than £1 billion for the Treasury. But any assumption that the replacement franchise could not do better is false.
In fact, the joint venture of Stagecoach and Virgin – in a 90% to 10% split, unlike the West Coast’s 49% to 51% - has bid what is known as a premium profile to yield £3.3 billion in total. That is around twice the rate of premium paid by DOR. And when Jones tells “it must be run by a tax exile and a Scottish businessman perhaps best known for campaigning against gay equality” he goes wrong again.
The new operator has agreed to run services to a timetable, and with trains, specified by the DfT. They may run more than DOR, but only if the DfT agrees and allocates paths for them. Richard Branson and Brian Souter have no say in the matter. It is the same on West Coast: they have no more say in specifying the Virgin Trains service out of Crewe than I do.
“British public opinion ... despairs of our fragmented, inefficient, rip-off rail network” asserts Jones. Well, up to a point. The despair is at what the travelling public see, while the reality is rather different. Virgin Trains operates several stations along the route of the West Coast operation. It owns none of them. Nor does it have any control of the tracks on which its trains run.
All are within the ownership of Network Rail (NR), which is a public body. All of that is already nationalised. No new trains are ordered for franchise operators unless the Government is prepared to underwrite the lease payments. The Government writes the timetable for them. What is not socialist is socialised. To some observers, franchise operators are the front the Government can easily hide behind.
And please, Owen, don’t fall into the “English passengers pay more for rail tickets than anywhere else in Europe” trap. It ain’t that simple, and like the choice of using a franchise system, to subsidise less than other European operations is a political decision. Demand management, especially for long distance services, is an area where the rest of Europe is more likely to move in our direction.
I welcome Owen Jones’ interest; I hope he sticks around and gets knowledgeable.