Private car is real rail competitor

A Virgin Pendolino train.
A Virgin Pendolino train.

The new franchise holders on the East Coast Main Line from March 1 are Stagecoach (90 per cent) and Virgin Trains (10 per cent).

Despite the disparity, the trains will be branded as Virgin, perhaps because the name is better known on trains.

Virgin Trains operates the West Coast line in conjunction with Stagecoach, but in this case Virgin is slightly the senior partner, with 51 per cent against Stagecoach’s 49 per cent.

Stagecoach, while stamping its brand on its buses all over the country, operates South West Trains and East Midlands Trains on its own account under those names.

As Virgin and Stagecoach have the West Coast franchise until 2017, it has been pointed out that they will have a virtual monopoly of the London to Scotland traffic until then. So much for the ideology of competitiveness!

Passengers have very little choice of train operator. There is a limited choice between operators on sections of both the East and West Coast lines, and on the Great Western line between Taunton and Penzance, but hardly any choice elsewhere. The competition is actually between the operators for the right to a monopoly of rail passenger traffic.

This does not mean that the train operators can hold everybody to ransom, because people do not have to travel by train. The real ground-level competition is between the different forms of transport, but the number of people travelling by air or by coach is very small. The real competitor to the train is the private car.

The difficulties of travelling by any means at times such as the major holiday periods is due simply to the fact that too many people want to travel around. The distance that people travel now is far greater than it was in the past, when families did not disperse to the extent that they do now, or when people worked in their home locality rather than travelling long distances to work on a daily or weekly basis.

Transport policy is inextricably linked to planning policy, which ought to be devoted to reducing the need to travel.

People have always griped about the railways. Looking back at British Rail now is simply looking through rose-tinted spectacles. Breaking BR up into bits for people to squabble over was because at the time, the rose-tinted spectacles looked back at the era known as the Grouping, which was when the 120 or so railway companies which existed at the end of the First World War were statutorily grouped into four broadly geographical companies.

One injustice which people feel keenly is that the 1993 Railways Act specifically prohibits the re- nationalisation of our railways in any form, so that while some of our trains are run by the state railways of the Netherlands, Germany and France, the only time that our own government can do so is as an operator of last resort, for which purpose Directly Operated Railways exists to take over if a privatised operator fails. Thus when National Express was forced to ‘hand in the keys’ in 2009 because it had been caught by the recession and could not keep up the payments, DOR took over the East Coast line. The fact that it has run it for nearly five years has been due to the submission of a bid by First Group to run the West Coast line which was so obviously unsustainable that the Department for Transport cancelled the bid and reviewed the whole process.

The awarding of the East Coast franchise has been done in almost unseemly haste because the government has been desperate to get it back into private hands before the election, for fear that the successor administration after the 2015 election might be of a sufficiently different persuasion as to put it on hold while it passes legislation to enable it to leave DOR in charge permanently.

There are quite a few people who would have regarded this as a consummation devoutly to be wished.

I have been taken to task for having bemoaned the loss of Transport Direct without mentioning that the nearest equivalent is Traveline, which is a not-for-profit organisation supported by local authorities and operators, and will supply details of any journey by any form of public transport. A phone number is shown on many bus stop signs, but unfortunately, after many signs had been made showing the original number, it was changed to 0871 2002233. Otherwise www.traveline.info

The underlying causes of the chaos resulting from over-running engineering works over Christmas need a more detailed explanation than can be given here and now. There will no doubt be other opportunities for the emotive headline writers to practice their art in the coming months, so I will approach the subject another time.