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The Great West Coast Rail Fiasco – not the last act

The Great West Coast Rail Fiasco – not the last act

🕔07.Dec 2012
Richard Branson at the Virgin America OC Launch.

So Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains gets to hold onto the train set – our train set – for another couple of years.

Following the almighty Government cock-up of the original contract for London to Birmingham/Scotland services, passengers will welcome a bit more certainty. But this is not the end of the saga, which has more twists than a pretzel from Brum’s German Market. The Government’s announcement of a 23 month contract allowing Virgin to continue running West Coast (WCML) until another franchise beauty contest can be organised still leaves unanswered questions, not least for the hard pressed taxpayer.

As a passenger you probably won’t notice much difference when you board your Pendolino at Euston, New Street or Birmingham International. Same Virgin logo, same claustrophobic, poor design, same tilting dizziness on the fast bits if you try to read – not forgetting the same eye-watering walk on fares (£158 Birmingham – London return).

This last is a hallmark of Virgin Trains that makes you think most of those who signed the 100,000 petition backing Branson’s bid are travelling on expenses or season tickets. But whatever Branson business-as-usual applies, what you’ll now experience is a Government contract rather than a franchise. Unlike a franchise this has the benefit of both operational and financial clarity. Instead of asking a train company to bid on the back of unreal sums of pay-back to taxpayers based on guessing future rail usage, the contract cuts down the futurology and says “run this, for this long at this price” – much simpler.

The other bonus is that we taxpayers get back any profit made rather than it going to Mr Branson. This is the system used by London Transport to run their mighty Overground services very successfully.

Ironically this new WCML contract came about accidentally as a result of transport ministers eviscerating their own rail section and splitting it in three for “cost saving” reasons. Link this to junking the role of Rail Director General at DfT and you have a timetable for hitting the buffers with a sickening crunch.

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