Three times in a decade, private companies have tried to run the trains on the east coast main line and, three times, they have failed.
The UK Government’s decision yesterday to replace the Stagecoach-dominated Virgin Trains East Coast (Vtec) with a public sector “operator of last resort” hardly came out of the blue, but the firm still expressed its surprise and disappointment.
The fundamental problem was that Vtec bid far too much to run the service – £3.3 billion or twice as much as its two private predecessors – an error for which it should take the largest share of the blame. However, ministers, who may have been blinded by the pound signs, should also have spotted this deal was too good to be true.
Inevitably, the temporary nationalisation led to calls for a permanent one. Supporters of the idea pointed to the success of the nationalised service that ran from 2009 to 2015.
However, despite the repeated outbreaks of chaos at the top under private ownership, the services themselves have been remarkably good – indeed they were rated one of the best in Britain in the latest passenger survey.
So, clearly, the staff running the actual trains are doing a pretty good job. And when there have been delays on the route, they have often been caused by problems with the track – the responsibility of the Government-owned Network Rail, not the private train operator.
Separating control of train services and the track never seemed like a particularly good idea and franchise holders have been as frustrated as passengers by faults on the line.
The Government sensibly plans a closer collaboration between train and track operators, which will hopefully improve services for passengers. And that, rather than ideologically driven matters about ownership, is ultimately what this is all about.
Supporters of nationalisation often hold up France’s SNCF as an example to emulate. But the reality is rather different to the image with some services in France attracting passenger grumbles as loud as those in the UK.
And the problem with a nationalised service is that it becomes prey to the whims of the government of the day. Just as councils, facing tough spending decisions, have perhaps let pothole repairs slide, governments are likely at some stage to decide education and the NHS matter more than ensuring the 3.10 to York is on time.