East Coast Trains – petition calls for continued public ownership

east-coast-train07:20 Tuesday 28th October 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: The future of the East Coast Main Line is going to be discussed in the House of Lords today. A petition has been created asking for the line to remain in public hands, and not to be run by a private company. Over the past ten years the line has been passed around between private and public hands like a hot potato. Currently run by a public group, but the Government will soon announce which private company will take over the line. So which would be better for us, for us who actually ride on the trains, staying public or going back to private? Joining me now is Phil Haigh. He’s a railway journalist who has covered this story for many years. Phil, this old chestnut again. Remind us of the history of East Coast Main Line.
PHILIP HAIGH: Well it was first privatised in the mid-1990s when a company called GNER took over, and they ran it for about ten years until 2007, when National Express took over. And that’s really where the line’s problems started in a major way.
National Express pretty quickly realised that they’d made the wrong bid for this line, and they actually handed the keys back to Government in 2009. So it was at that point that Government had to step in and run it as part of the public sector.
DOTTY MCLEOD: from a consumer point of view Phil, has there been a big difference between the public and the private services?
PHILIP HAIGH: Well there has. In National Express’s day the line really hit a low spot, and passengers were receiving a pretty shoddy service from that company. So since then, since it’s gone back into public hands, it has got better. But really it couldn’t have got much worse.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Oh dear! So not a ripping endorsement there for private running. Are you worried then, or concerned or surprised, that the Government is now looking for or have looked for a private company to take it over again?
PHILIP HAIGH: I’m not at all surprised. Government has to. It’s actually the law of the land. When the railways were privatised back in the ’90s the Government passed the Railways Act that did all of that, and it said in that Act that UK state companies could not bid and could not run railway franchises. So what we’ve had since 2009 has been a temporary situation, and the Government is now returning it to where it thinks it should be, and that’s in the private sector.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Is there anything wrong per se with the idea of a private company running a train line? I know that National Express you say didn’t do very well, but there are other private companies who run train lines pretty successfully.
PHILIP HAIGH: Yes there are, and there is nothing wrong at all with a private company running a railway operation. Many of them are very very successful, and deliver the sort of service that passengers and Government expect.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So this petition, more than 30,000 people have signed it, wanting the East Coast Main Line to stay public, you’re saying that actually it would be illegal for it to do so.
PHILIP HAIGH: Yes. As things currently stand, as the Railways Act currently stands, the Government is not able to keep it in the public sector indefinitely.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK Phil, thank you very much for joining me. railway journalist there, who has covered the story surrounding the East Coast Main Line for many years.