Thursday, 26 March 2015

East Coast Trains

East Coast trains - reliable and profitable

It was a sad day to see the demise of East Coast trains on the Inverness, Edinburgh to London route. Over recent years I have travelled to London by this line on a regular basis and I have been pleasantly surprised by the reliability of the service and the excellent customer care. It has been a far better service than the west coast mainline in recent years as I discovered on those occasions when it was necessary to travel from Glasgow. The rolling stock is certainly in need of upgrading but East Coast trains could not be expected to invest in an upgrade when refranchising was to take place and the government excluded the publicly owned East Coast trains from bidding. Virgin trains won the bid and now control both the west and east coast routes from Scotland to London. If privatisation was supposed to provide better service through competition then that justification has been jettisoned as well as any franchise rights for publicly owned railways.

Since the line was nationalised following the financial failure of National Express it has outperformed all other train services and is currently returning more money back to the state than any other operator. An East Coast spokesman said: "We always believed that a return of this franchise to the private sector was inevitable. Since we took over in 2009, we have repaid more than £640m to the taxpayer, achieved record-breaking customer satisfaction and the best performance on the route since records began in 1999." Virgin, on taking over the route, removed the through train from Inverness to London so we have switched to flying to London rather than paying the increased Virgin ticket prices for a journey that takes half an hour longer, involves another change of train and a far more crowded train from Edinburgh.

Unlike the Virgin's west coast line, which is often overcrowded - I have had to stand or sit in the corridors on several occasions- East Coast staff always tried to ensure that everyone was seated. When trains were cancelled because of gales a couple of years ago, East Coast allowed passengers to travel at no extra cost the following day. It seemed the right thing to do but Scotrail and Virgin did not take the same view,  an example of a public service provider putting the customer before profit. 

UK rail fares are now the highest in the world whilst the network is far less efficient than the state owned European railways. It is perhaps surprising in these circumstances that passenger numbers have vastly increased. This is mainly because commuting has continued to grow as fewer people are able to afford to move house nearer to their work when they change jobs and the motorway network for long distance journeys is log jammed.

It is a sad indictment of rail privatisation that there has been so little improvement in services although underinvestment by Network Rail has been a major contributor to the reliability of trains. The government seems more keen to bankroll HS2 and the vast cost of London's Crossrail projects than to improve the existing nationwide network. The rolling stock has been replaced by the private operators through subsidised leasing arrangements but mainly in the south east and on the busiest inter city lines. Meanwhile passengers in much of the north of England continue to rattle along in 40 year old rolling stock or older still in places like Lincolnshire and the Pennines. Every rail journey on the state owned railways of mainland Europe reminds you of how trains in the UK are expensive, crowded and in many instances unreliable.

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