East Coast: Why privatisation is not the end of the line for rail reform

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I am writing this article on board what the Conservative Party hopes is one of the last publicly run trains in Britain.

On Sunday, East Coast will be privatised. The nation’s stake – its share in the East Coast Main Line company – will be sold to Stagecoach and Virgin Trains for a meagre £11 million. The East Coast livery will be quietly replaced by a new brand, as if the last five and a half years never occurred.

East Coast Rail

Why is this happening? As a Nottinghamshire MP and resident, I am a regular traveller on the route. I have seen the uncertainty on the East Coast Main Line since privatisation: from GNER, whose parent company collapsed, to National Express, which failed to meet its financial obligations in 2009. If there was one area of the network that would have benefited from a prolonged period of stability, it was undoubtedly the East Coast Main Line. But the privatisation agenda rolled on regardless.

The train is now approaching Stevenage. Since the election, Ministers offered a constantly changing story as they pushed privatisation through regardless of the cost. Even after the catastrophic collapse of franchising in 2012, resources were diverted and other projects delayed in the desperate rush to get East Coast out the door before the election.

We were told that punctuality had plateaued, until it was pointed out that East Coast has actually achieved record punctuality scores – even though an unprecedented number of trains are now being run on the route. It was claimed that East Coast did not deliver enough for customers, but passenger satisfaction reached new heights instead. Ministers then said that privatisation was necessary to deliver investment – ignoring the fact that the finances for the route’s new train fleet and infrastructure improvements are already in place.

We stop at Peterborough, where East Coast contributed £1.3 million to the station’s recent refurbishment.

Then came the questions that Ministers couldn’t answer. Why should the state operators of France, Germany and the Netherlands all be permitted to bid when the successful British owned operator was barred? Why is London Underground allowed to do a good job of directly providing services, if it is genuinely believed that a public operator should not run trains, except as a last resort? Why was privatising East Coast the Department for Transport’s top priority, instead of addressing the network’s chronic rolling stock shortages and unravelling electrification programme?

No answers have been given, because there are none to give. The Government has failed to offer a coherent argument for privatising East Coast for one simple reason: when you peel back the layers of distortion, dishonesty and obfuscation, all you have left is raw political opportunism, and an instinctive, ideological aversion to the public sector.

We wind our way north, tracing the route of the Flying Scotsman and the other famous trains that have run on this line. As the service slows we pass the bank south of Grantham, where Gresley’s Mallard once strained to reach 126 miles per hour. East Coast’s successful five years at the helm are passing into history too.

I am approaching the end of this journey, although it is clearly not the end of the debate. Why was East Coast privatised? The real answer is that the service was too effective; too obvious a challenge to the Government’s failed franchising policies to continue. It was not allowed to survive because it has marked out a different path for the railways.

As we head towards May 7th, the Tories want passengers to believe that the question of how we run our rail network is settled, but East Coast has shown that a different approach can deliver better services and value for money. Labour will go into the election on a platform of ensuring more public control of the network and allowing a public-sector operator to take on lines and challenge the train operators on a genuinely level playing field.  The fight to keep East Coast public may be over, but the wider battle to reform our railways is only just beginning.

Lilian Greenwood is the MP for Nottingham South and is Shadow Rail Minister

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