East Coast v West Coast: Aim to revive rail rivalry

East Coast is the electrified 393-mile link between London and Edinburgh. Picture: PA
East Coast is the electrified 393-mile link between London and Edinburgh. Picture: PA
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THE historic rivalry between the two rail operators running trains from Scotland to England could be reignited following calls to “rekindle the spirit of competition” once the East Coast Main Line is {http://www.scotsman.com/news/transport/east-coast-rail-privatisation-plans-to-be-outlined-1-3156088|returned to the private sector|Click here}.

In the 19th century, British passenger trains belonging to different companies would race each other from England to Scotland across the East and West of the country in battles dubbed “The Race to the North”.

Now ministers have called for a return to a more competitive approach to Scotland’s railways as they kickstart the franchising process for the East Coast Main Line which has been publicly run since 2009.

Ministers say the line has since been “stabilised” but they now want to boost competition.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said public ownership was never meant to be a permanent arrangement and returning the operation of the line to the private sector would bring more investment and innovation.

“We want to see a revitalised East Coast railway, one that both rekindles the spirit of competition for customers on this great route and competes with the West Coast on speed, quality and customer service,” he said.

However, Labour and the unions said the move was “ideological” and that the line should remain in public ownership.

They added that the failure of two successive operators to make the line commercially viable and its improved performance in recent years show it can succeed under public ownership.

East Coast is the electrified 393-mile link between London and Edinburgh. A non-electrified line extends further north into Scotland from Edinburgh to Inverness and Aberdeen.

The government began the franchising process yesterday by releasing information about the line’s financial position as well as the basic criteria for interested parties and details of the commercial risks involved.

The successful bidder is due to be announced in a year’s time with its franchise starting in February 2015.

Among those reported to be interested in bidding for the franchise is Eurostar, which runs services from London to the Continent, as well as the current West Coast Main Line operator, Virgin Trains, who last night said it was “looking forward to participating in the franchise competition”.

UK government rail minister Stephen Hammond said the East Coast “lagged behind” other long-distance operators in terms of punctuality while customer satisfaction was only “in line” with other routes.

“While they have done a good job, there is a lot more that can be done,” he said, adding that the doubling of rail passengers since privatisation in the 1990s showed the benefits of the franchise process.

Critics of privatisation say the East Coast line has returned £800million to the taxpayer under public ownership.

Meanwhile, the opposition says the government has “learned nothing” from the debacle over the West Coast Main Line franchising process last year, which had to be abandoned after mistakes by civil servants led to flawed calculations.

The RMT union has pledged to fight the re-privatisation, saying the government is playing down the success of the line under public ownership in order to “bulldoze” the sale through.