Today Virgin Trains, the West Coast Mainline Franchise holder for some 15 years, lost its lucrative hold on this line to one of the worst performing TOCs in recent times, the ironically named “First Group.” A TOC that repeatedly fails to meet government set targets about punctuality and seems hellbent on a price hiking system that means that a return ticket for a journey from Paddington to Oxford will set you back almost £50. Nearly a pound a mile. This, is versus an operator whose consistently high standards have persistently placed them at the top of the league tables for train operators over the past 15 years. All because of a flawed bidding system.
Virgin trains were reported to have commented that they made a “realistic bid” for the franchise, but lost out because of the vastness of Firstgroup’s coffers. This worries me for a number of reasons. One would’ve thought that the government, who issue the franchises, would have learned from National Express’ example of a few years back. Another ridiculous bid, that pushed off high quality operator “GNER” from the East Coast Franchise and then when they could not make the route profitable enough to fund their repayments, then lost this to the state who had to step in and take control at considerable public expense. Yet, we see another company pursuing the same line.
First have claimed that they can make this route pay back, and they can do this without cutting operating costs. I’ve read their proposals. Adding 11 six car trains to the London-Glasgow Route is not going to make this work. This is an undersubscribed route, in fact, a lot of the West Coast is undersubscribed, and with the prospect of HS2 coming along, it begs the thought of why bother upgrading capacity in the short run.
The RMT have threatened industrial action if Firstgroup try to cut costs by hacking pay and services, and let’s face it, they will. So presumably, we’re looking at a return to the days of the late 1980s, where rail transport was severely disrupted by industrial action. And this is caused by a flawed railway and bidding system.
Firstgroup have a poor record for customer satisfaction, and this juxtaposed by Virgin/Stagecoach’s high record of customer satisfaction. I can vouch for Virgin trains being a fantastic company. Having travelled into Manchester Piccadilly on a “First Transpennine” service, the difference between the attitudes of the two companies was stark. As I was travelling first class and had prebooked, I was met at the platform at Manchester and I made my way to the first class lounge where the service offered from then, until arriving at Milton Keynes was absolutely wonderful. First Transpennine on the other hand didn’t want to know, and their desiro trains were difficult to get onto with a lot of luggage.
Privatisation has not saved money at all; in fact it has increased operating costs. And providing a public service with a profit motive ensures that money comes first and people second. We see a lack of investment as a result, and a railway system that leaves us lagging behind the rest of Europe. And I hope that the selling of this franchise for the ludicrous price tag that it sold for, will work out for Firstgroup without them causing the West Coast Mainline to slide into disrepute. Otherwise, we may see another return to a state controlled mainline which is not good for public confidence in our ailing railway system.