Commentary: too early for champagne

The news that the FCC franchise is to end early (September 2013) is certainly an opportunity – but also potentially a threat. The announcement is essentially technical – there is no suggestion that the appalling treatment of passengers or poor performance are a key issue. But it does mean that there could be an opportunity in 2013 to have a better company in place. Equally, it could be that First Group could get a 15 year contract from 2013 and campaigners need to focus on this – and on making sure that the new franchise better reflects passenger interests.

The fact that ATOC (see below) has welcomed the move should give cause for hesitation – if not concern – to those who are worried about how the railways are managed.

Meanwhile, the much heralded fare increases, in part necessitated by economic circumstances, will undoubtedly and understandably dismay hard-pressed rail users.

On all these points, Chris will be making representation to the Government over the next few weeks.

One thing, however, is clear: Bob Crow’s hypocritical comments below remind us that the rail unions are no friends of the travelling public.

Article in Railnews:

A REVISED franchise timetable announced by the transport secretary has been welcomed by the Association of Train Operating Companies, but the largest rail union has condemned the new plans as a ‘rip-off’.

Philip Hammond has reduced the length of the First Capital Connect franchise, and extended others. He has also accepted that East Coast cannot now return to private sector operation before the end of 2013.

The transport secretary said the changes were being made to provide ‘clarity to the market’.

He explained: “In producing this timetable, I have had regard to the impact on bidders and their sub-contractors of trying to compete for too many franchises at once, and the likely reduction in value for money to the taxpayer that would result. ”

Mr Hammond’s new timetable means that Great Western and Thameslink (currently First Capital Connect) have been brought forward (by 35 months and 18 months respectively), the next Northern and TransPennine Express can now have a simultaneous start date of April 2014, while two other franchises (East Coast and Greater Anglia) have been extended.

In at least one case, Mr Hammond’s hand has been forced: FirstGroup has already announced that it will surrender the Great Western franchise in 2013. The group therefore avoids paying more than £800 million in premiums which would have been due in the last three years of the original contract.

Three franchise replacements – West Coast, South Eastern and Essex Thameside (currently c2c) – remain unchanged. However, talks are continuing over whether Virgin Trains should continue to operate West Coast between March 2012 – its original expiry date – and December, with the Department for Transport’s own operator Directly Operated Railways poised to step in to fill the gap if necessary.

ATOC, which has been calling for less restrictive franchises, welcomed Mr Hammond’s announcement.

The Association’s chief executive Michael Roberts said: “The next few years present a chance to improve fundamentally how the railways are run. On the right terms, longer and less prescriptive franchises would give train companies more opportunity to invest in improvements, respond more quickly to passengers’ needs and reduce costs.

“We welcome the government’s commitment to a horses for courses approach to franchising. The secretary of state rightly recognises the scale of work ahead to translate principle into practice – his announcement will allow the government and bidders alike to plan how best to respond.”

However, the RMT union dubbed the transport secretary’s plans a ‘rail franchise rip-off’, particularly as the next round of franchises are expected to last longer.

The union’s general secretary Bob Crow said: “Today’s announcement will have the train operators laughing all the way to the bank. These new fifteen year franchises are nothing less than a licence to print money for the same companies who have jacked up fares and ripped off hundreds of millions of pounds in profits and subsidies since privatisation.

“It’s a disgrace that the public sector, who have bailed out the East Coast line when the private company Nat Ex threw back the keys, are only seen as a stop gap when things go wrong rather than a long-term, safer and cheaper option.

“This government have learnt nothing from the costly failure of rail privatisation and are determined, through this programme, to continue to reward those same operators who have robbed the taxpayer blind.”

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