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?
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