Last weekend, Virgin and Stagecoach handed over the keys, timetables, and deficits that represent the East Coast main line franchise.
Not the rails mind you. They belong to someone else. And not the trains either, because they are leased to Virgin Trains East Coast by another private firm at a handsome price. We can only assume they are licking their lips at the prospect of negotiating new fees with you.
As a layman, it does leave me scratching my head to work out just what Virgin were charging people for. The cost of the thin air between the tracks and the trains? Or the price of the folksy adverts adorning their stations?
Never mind. It was a stroke of genius on your part to rebrand under LNER, reaching back an impressive 95 years in search of the last private company to successfully operate the East Coast line.
As Virgin and Stagecoach have now pocketed the profits and skipped out of paying the Government £2.2bn in premiums, we should remember this is the third time the Government has had to step in to rescue the dog’s breakfast that a private company has made of the franchise. And every time at huge cost to the taxpayer.
But despite my misgivings about the abuse of the public purse by Virgin and Stagecoach, I really do welcome this decision.
I applaud your socialist vision, and your nationalising zeal. But why stop at LNER?
Northern’s timetable change fiasco is a symptom, not a cause of the problem.
The performance of the last few weeks is nothing short of a catastrophic and systemic meltdown, brought about by poor management, under-investment, and utter contempt (as Lisa Nandy MP has revealed) for the needs of Northern commuters.
The leaked emails from the Department for Transport (DfT) show that not only do we need a culture change in the approach to nationalisation, we also need powers for the North to be able to implement these public options. The logical conclusion of a centralised Civil Service and Government in London is that the DfT think all they need is to throw us “a sop” to keep us quiet.
While the franchise is transferred to an emergency timetable, we know this is not a short-term problem. Northern themselves admit they are short by 450 drivers. What’s more, their refusal to negotiate with the RMT over the safety concerns of driver-only operation, is astounding.
And all because Northern does not accept the valid safety issues being raised by a trade union.
The majority of Northern’s 650 stations are unstaffed, and can be unsafe and vulnerable places for the many commuters who rely on the service. All you need to do is board one overcrowded Pacer train to see why the guard is essential to the safe and timely running of a service. You should come up and try it sometime.
With these failures weighing on every Yorkshire commuter, I ask myself – why was East Coast renationalised at the drop of a hat while Northern is condemned to limp on? Is it because London is not affected? While we wait for HS2 to arrive before any significant investment in our rail system, we can see the South is wick with public cash.
So Minister, how can you help us in our hour of need?
A nationalised rail system, and One Yorkshire devolution with franchising powers, are the ways you can show the North that you are serious about resolving this crisis.
So Chris, I call on you to seize the means of locomotion. Finish the job by nationalising Northern Rail, Cross Country, East Midlands, the whole lot of them. And give us real powers in the North to regulate and oversee rail services. It’s time to run railways for people, not profit.
On 26th June, The Yorkshire Post published an open letter to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, signed by Bill Adams, Regional Secretary, TUC Yorkshire & the Humber.
In that letter Mr Adams suggested that shareholders Stagecoach and Virgin “pocketed the profits” from the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. Virgin Trains has asked that we make clear neither company made a penny of profit from the franchise but lost more than £200m.