So, it appears that Richard Branson was right. The west coast mainline franchising process was fundamentally “flawed” (a slight under-statement?) and the government has decided that it should be re-tendered. Of course, it’s all going to cost the tax payer - compensation figure of £40million has been banded about, but some observers reckon that this will look like “small change” when the true cost has been established.Clearly(!), this is nothing to do with the Transport Secretary (Justine Greening has conveniently swapped jobs recently) and, inevitably, civil servants are being blamed. But, according to The Times, WS Atkins and law firm Eversheds were hired in January to give technical advice on the franchise process!
Perhaps it REALLY is time the railways were returned to public ownership?
In a letter in today’s Guardian, Green MP Caroline Lucas calls for exactly that and points out the following:
“Since privatisation in the 1990s, the cost of train travel in the UK has risen by 17% in real terms – compared with a 7% drop in the cost of motoring… Thanks to higher interest payments to keep debts off the government balance sheet, and costs arising from fragmentation and the complex network of subcontractors, the cost to the public purse of running the railways has risen by 2 to 3 times since privatisation…
Bringing the railways back into public hands could save over £1bn a year of taxpayers' money – some of which could be spent on reducing fares…”
Despite the fact that none of the three major parties is calling for renationalisation of the railways, it appears that the public very definitely DO want the railways to be returned to public ownership (93% in a Guardian website poll; 75% in a MSN poll and a similar number in a GfKNOP poll).
In its last year before privatisation, our railways apparently required just £431m in public subsidy. By 2006, the figure had reached over £6 BILLION. Economists at UBS found British fares are now the most expensive in the world. The Labour government commissioned a review by Roy McNulty into the railways. It was published under the coalition and found that the costs of our fragmented system (note: there are apparently over 2,000 firms who operate UK trains!) had created a 40% "efficiency gap" over our continental neighbours and their mostly nationalised railways.
Oliver Huitson wrote this in The Guardian in March this year:
"For so-called ‘choice’, if you arrive at Victoria and you need a train to Brighton, there is one company and one price (£24.10). In Europe, the same fare would cost an average £11. If we paid the same fares as the French with their nationalised service, it is estimated we would save over £4bn a year. Yes, if you dig around three years in advance and have a small team of analysts at your disposal, you might just find a bargain. But woe betide the swaggering Johnny who turns up at a British station and expects to just stroll onto a train at a fair price; that braggadocio is a thing of the past”.
Don’t you just LOVE it!
Note: *words used by the Conservative former transport minister, Philip Hammond, to describe the railway system in September last year.