Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Going north by rail? Virgin-Stagecoach now compulsory

Last week, the East Coast rail franchise was awarded to a consortium that is part owned by Virgin Trains, which will dominate the branding.  I've been mulling it over.

I've always enjoyed travelling on the East Coast Mainline, and that isn't just because it has been run in the interim by a state-owned franchise.  I liked it when it was privately run by GNER.  I liked it because it was more civilised than other railway lines, more relaxed, more reliable and the staff were flexible, understanding and helpful.

But there was another reason I liked it.  It wasn't Virgin Trains.

Now I've no idea of Virgin Trains are still as unreliable on the West Coast as they used to be, but I don't enjoy the cramped seating, the incessant announcements and the smell of urine because of the design of the lavatories.  I don't like the way their staff are forbidden from being flexible.

Let's leave aside the issue of privatisation.  I have no problem with operators making a profit in principle, as long as they deserve it.  The issue here is one of monopoly.  If I want to go north now, I have to travel by Virgin.  There was a choice; soon there won't be.

Behind this is an ideological wrangle inside the coalition.  For Conservatives, competition means handing over services to private operators.  To Lib Dems, competition has to mean a choice by consumers - or it would mean that if they articulated it, which for other reasons they have never quite got around to doing.

Now, you could blame the Conservatives for this blatant return to monopoly, but they are at least consistent.  They don't believe monopoly is an issue and they are actually not that interested in choice beyond privatisation.

No, I blame Liberals over the past generation for allowing their central economic idea to atrophy.  Without the Liberal voice, we have become dominated by monopolies - and are that much more dominated as a result of this decision.  It will mean higher prices and worse service - because that is what monopolies do.

You could say that Virgin will own only ten per cent of the franchise, and Stagecoach owns the rest.  Actually, of course, Virgin only owns 51 per cent of Virgin Trains, which has the West Coast Main Line franchise (Stagecoach owns the other half).  That isn't the point.  The point is, how do consumers choose a way to the north by rail that doesn't involve Virgin and Stagecoach?  They can't.

The Transport Secretary said this award "rekindles the spirit of competition".  Maybe it does in the Conservative sense.  It doesn't in any Liberal sense.

On the same page of my newspaper reporting the story last week was another report, the early stages of an attempt by MEPs to break up the granddaddy of all monopolies - Google.  Led, in this case, by a Spanish Liberal.

Now why are we not discussing these issues?  Or are UK Liberals only interested in tackling potential state tyrannies and not potential private sector ones?


Anonymous said...

It is common sense for the railways to be in public ownership as they are a natural monopoly anyway. Same with water, armed forces and the police.

Aside from this however it is even worse than you suggest as East Midlands Trains is run by Stagecoach. So with the exception of the Great Western Mainline, (or the diabolical Cross Country), all former Intercity routes are now run by Stagecoach.

As for Virgin, their rolling stock is dire, both on the West Coast and the appalling rubbish they introduced to Cross Country before they ditched it. Cramped with seating which causes back pain due to the hardness and straight up backs on it, rather than the soft padded slanted seats on the old Intercity trains. And the stock on Cross Country was so appalling that the new operator Arriva (now owned by the German State Railway), brought back the state built Intercity 125s, which it now tries to avoid running due to leasing charges, despite the fact that the British state built these trains. It is similar to building a house, selling it for peanuts then renting it back for astronomical rents.

East Coast's "civilisation" is largely due to using former state built stock.

Renationalise the lot, and let engineers build and design the trains, rather than accountants, marketing types and 'ergonomics' experts. BR did a sterling job with the 125s and 225s and everything that has come to supplement or replace them has been woeful quality.

Meanwhile Tory minister Claire Perry wants to improve the railway by axing all guards and cutting station staff...

crazyfirdayman said...

Virgin now have a complete monopoly on train transport to Scotland. Over many years I have taken the East Coast line and unfortunately on a single occasion I had to take a Virgin West coast journey. At first I thought their trains looked fine, but it didn't take too long to realise there is absolutely no luggage space, the seat reservations are indicated just by a reserved card and no details of the journey, and the actual seat after twenty minutes got very uncomfortable. I could of been sitting on wood, absolutely no cushioning for a six hour plus journey.

What they do is simple economics, get new trains, remove all luggage space, increase seating capacity, cram commuters in and then let them fend for themselves when they do get to sit down. You'd certainly do better sat in the toilet if it were tolerable.

Where was the public consultation on this? No where. AS for Clare Perry I see she complained about the ScotRail sleeper service on twitter, but I couldn't help wonder why the hell didn't she use Virgin. I am so incensed by this fragrant monopolization of our rail services I will be putting pen to paper to complain. There's only one thing Branson cares about and that is Branson. Just as there is only one thing both the liberals and the Tory's care about and that is being in power.

Hopefully the ballot box will shortly kick them out. I certainly believe Liberals will not be in power for another 70 years after their performance the last 5 years, and hope to see both Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander out of politics for good.