Comment: Let’s hope rail line privatisation hits buffers

Scott Reid
Scott Reid
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FRIDAY saw the UK government fire the starting gun on the reprivatisation of the East Coast main line.

Opponents of the move, led by Labour and the RMT trade union, point to previous private-sector mishandling and argue that the crucial cross-Border link should remain in public hands.

Government officials warn of “ill-informed scaremongering” and say the franchising of the route will “rekindle the spirit of competition”. There appears to be little common ground.

Ironically, the UK government’s prospectus lays bare the turnaround that has taken place since 2009 when National Express handed back the franchise amid financial woes.

Passenger revenues are up by 11 per cent, while journey numbers have increased by one million to 19.1 million. And there’s the not-so-small matter of the £620 million returned to taxpayer coffers.

Most regular users would agree that the service has improved markedly since the dark days of 2009.

In an attempt to sell the franchising process, rail minister Stephen Hammond notes that East Coast “lagged behind” other long-distance operators in terms of punctuality while customer satisfaction was only “in line” with other routes. Hardly the strongest of arguments.

Privatisation of the railways has not been without success, nor has it held back investment in many areas. Virgin has made a decent fist of the West Coast line, for example.

There is no desire for the taxpayer to shoulder unnecessary financial risk, but the success of the current East Coast set-up proves this needn’t be the case.

Perhaps a private operator could bring more to the table than a lick of paint and some fancy new uniforms. The concern is that, on such a potentially lucrative route, there may be too much focus on shareholder returns.

Ministers hope to unveil a successful bidder in a year’s time, with the franchise starting in February 2015. Sufficient time to reconsider one privatisation move that is simply not needed.

Shoppers ill served by tills

IT’S the dystopian nightmare of countless science-fiction plots: machines taking over the world.

In reality, humans are likely to retain the upper hand. Some brainy types have to program them after all.

But there’s one area where the march of technology appears unassailable: the self-service till. Most supermarkets have been invaded by these beeping, droning, humanless checkouts.

Those resisting the onslaught can find solace in research that suggests that one in three shoppers has walked out of a store because of a bad experience with a robotised till. More than 80 per cent admitted to needing staff assistance, while 40 per cent experienced technical hiccups. Hardly the definition of self-service.

A case of retailers pushing ahead with something because it suits them rather than their customers.

Twitter: @scottjamesreid