TO BE fair to Chris Grayling, the management and financial turmoil on the East Coast Main Line – Yorkshire’s main rail link to both London and Scotland – precedes his troubled tenureship of the Department for Transport.
First, GNER was stripped of responsibility for running the route in 2007. Then National Express pulled out in 2009. And, then after a period in public hands, Stagecoach and Virgin were awarded an eight-year franchise in 2014 worth £3.3bn.
Now, after over-estimating the profits that could be accrued from this route, they, too, are foreclosing the deal and Mr Grayling now faces two invidious options. He can either sign off a short-term deal with the incumbents – effectively a taxpayer-funded bailout until a new franchise model is set up that will also include Network Rail’s responsibilities for track infrastructure – or he can bring the route back into public control and effectively concede that Tory privatisation of the railways was was a political and economic mistake.
Those advocating the latter course include Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary who oversaw the line’s return to public control after the National Express deal collapsed. He believes the Government can’t keep subsidising operators who get their calculations wrong and this issue triggered. in part, his resignation as head of the National Infrastructure Commission.
Yet the line’s future is too important to be left to party politics. What matters most of all is coming up with a plan that protects the interests of the travelling public – and provides reassurances to those train staff, and others, who, yet again, have done their best to provide a first class service after being let down by their bosses. And this is Mr Grayling’s primary duty as the East Coast Main Line prepares for its fifth change of management in just over a decade.