Passengers’ views discarded in East Coast Sell off

A leaked report by the RMT (Britain’s largest specialist transport union) reveal that the Department of Transport is trying to downplay the success of the publicly owned East Coast Main Line in order to pave way for a future privatisation.

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a 393-mile arterial rail line operating between London and Aberdeen. It was re-nationalised on 14 November 2009 after the collapse of the private sector operator NXEC. The RMT report is based upon a leaked East Coast franchise prospectus, designed to be used as an aid for a planned 2015 sell off. It details a conspiracy to redact and play down details of passenger satisfaction, punctuality of current operations and omit comparison with other rail competitors.

The original draft detailed the ECML’s 92% score in the Passenger Focus National Passenger Survey, published in Autumn 2012, but  the revised and redacted version removed the following killer point:

“….this represents a significant improvement on the previous survey and ECML score was three percentage points ahead of the long distance train operator average.”

The proposed sell off of the ECML has been justified by the Conservative Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin MP, who wrote in March of this year that returning the operation of the East Coast Main Line into private hands will:

“Place passengers in the driving seat by ensuring that their views and satisfaction levels are taken into account when deciding which companies run our railway services”

These are remarks that do not sit comfortably with the omissions highlighted in the RMT report. More likely the Department of Transport hopes for another overvalued sell-off, of the same ilk that originally doomed NXEC to financial ruination, in order to help source the £9.4 billion needed for this governments 2014-2019 rail investment strategy.

Surely though after 4 years of successful public ownership and smooth operation between major cities like London, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh, it is not in the national interest to jeopardise the running of such a key piece of transport infrastructure on what the RMT describes as a ‘gold-plated, eleven year deal’.

It is worth noting that there is no cross party consensus on returning the ECML to private hands. In June this year the MP for Middlesbrough (serviced by the ECML at Darlington) Labour’s Andy McDonald, told the House of Commons that since the Scotland-to-London ECML became publicly owned, it also became the only rail line in the country “which comes close to paying for itself”; highlighting the dependence of private rail operators upon government subsidies in order turn a profit. So while a privatisation may suit Tory ideology in practice there is no evidence to show that the private sector can offer more cost-effective operations.

From a North Eastern perspective, the leaked documents to the RMT are a deep cause for concern. As the document drops references to good punctuality and performance the expectation for passengers must be that future private operators are not expected to match such performance. Something, either of frequency of service or capacity has to give on a line which is not only one of the most frequently used in Britain, but one which also fills terrible dearth in road infrastructure north of Newcastle and a lack of flight options in North East England generally. So for anyone hoping that a new operator might be able to provide a train south of Edinburgh after 9 PM, my only advice to them is don’t hold your breath.