Sebastian Payne

Can the government avoid another rail fiasco before 2015?

There’s some exciting train news today, and no, it’s not related to HS2. The Transport Secretary has announced that the franchise for the East Coast Mainline has gone out to tender. Britain’s second busiest railway marked a low point for rail privatisation, when National Express bombed out of the franchise and Labour nationalised the line. Since then it has been under government control and the coalition has delayed throwing it back into the private sector several times.

How have each of the operators fared on the line? Since British Rail was privatised in the early 1990s, the ECML has been run by Great North Eastern Railways (1996 to 2007), National Express East Coast (2007 to 2009) and the government-owned East Coast (2009 to present). According to the Office of Rail Regulation, this is how passengers have rated their services:

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GNER suffered two major accidents under its tenure — the Hatfield crash in October 2000 and the Great Heck crash in February 2001 — which gravely affected their services and customer reputation. As you can see, it took GNER a long time to recover, and when another operated started competing them they got into financial trouble and the government withdrew their franchise.

National Express took over the line and managed to improve passenger satisfaction – but they also entered into financial difficulties and quit the franchise. The government’s East Coast has been a financial success, returning £238 million to the Treasury last year, but has had a mixed record with customers as you can see above.

Now that the line is being privatised again, can passengers expect great improvements? Patrick McLoughlin has said the new operator will be handed brand new trains and more infrastructure investment in return for operating 32 services a day from March 2015, increasing to 45 in May 2020.

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