30 November 2017
The notorious East Coast mainline, which was brought into public ownership in 2009 after National Express failed to make a profit, and then controversially reprivatised in 2015, has run into trouble again.
The new owners, Virgin and Stagecoach (who operate together as Virgin Trains East Coast, or Vtec for short) have, surprise surprise, failed to make the profit they expected from the franchise.
Instead of bringing the East Coast back into public ownership, where it could be run for passengers, not profit, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has offered Vtec a huge bailout and agreed to end the contract three years early.
This means that Vtec will pay millions less to the UK government than it initially promised.
We could have saved them the trouble if, back in 2013, the government had listened to us and other campaigners, and kept East Coast public! Between 2009 and 2015, the publicly owned East Coast line had a 91% customer satisfaction rate, required much less public subsidy, paid back £1 billion to the Treasury and was the most efficient franchise in the UK.
Lord Andrew Adonis, who was responsible for bringing East Coast into public ownership back in 2009, has spoken out against the plan. He says that other rail companies will now be expecting the same treatment.
This means that companies hoping to run rail franchises will place unrealistically high bids, knowing that if and when they don’t make the profit that they promise, they can just back out of the contract and the government (in other words, taxpayers) will foot the bill.
If our railway was run in public ownership, we'd save £1.2 billion a year, enough to fund an 18% cut in rail fares. That's because we wouldn't be wasting money on shareholder profits, fragmentation and a higher cost of borrowing. Why should our taxes be gifted to failing rail companies on top of that? Not to mention the government subsidies that Britain’s railways rely on.
This is a dangerous and expensive precedent for Chris Grayling to set. We know that public ownership works for our railways - it did before and it will again. Let’s bring East Coast into public ownership, before the next private franchise ends in disaster.
(The picture shows Cat Hobbs, Lilian Greenwood MP, Manuel Cortes from the TSSA union, the late Bob Crow from RMT union, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP and Ellie Harrison from Bring Back British Rail, outside Parliament campaigning to keep East Coast public back in 2013.)