THE Department for Transport is right, in many respects, to play for time over the renewal of major rail franchises – too much public money has already been wasted rectifying the costly errors of bureaucrats rather than investing these funds in new rolling stock for example.
Yet, even though Ministers want the nationalised East Coast route that runs through Yorkshire back in private ownership by the time of the next election, they still need to proceed with caution to avoid repeating past mistakes.
It should be remembered that this line was only nationalised after GNER, and then National Express, failed to fulfil their financial obligations to the DfT after making over optimistic assumptions on revenue.
However, the East Coast service has enjoyed a period of stability since it returned to state control in 2009 and this must not be compromised by any political calculations. As the Tories were the architects of rail privatisation, some had said it would be ironic if this line remained nationalised for the entire duration of a Conservative-led government.
The ultimate decision should be based on which firm can provide the best deal for passengers – and the taxpayer – while also keeping rail fares in check. The same also applies to the renewal of the Northern franchise which has been put back until February 2016.
For, while the railways have been enjoying a revival in spite of above-inflation increases in ticket prices, there is some evidence to suggest that passenger numbers have spiked and that this could compromise the calculations of rail operators – and the Government – who need the upward trend to continue in order to fund many of the planned improvements to the transport network. In short, passenger interests must come first – for once.