Tony Lodge: Competition is the fast track to a first-class railway (The Yorkshire Post)

Tony Lodge, CPS Research Fellow and author of Rail’s Second Chance, wrote for The Yorkshire Post, Sunday 25 February 2015. 

To read the original article, visit the Yorkshire Post website

“FOR those in Yorkshire who are interested in trains then 2015 promises to be a special year. After 10 years of toil and graft by the staff of York’s National Railway Museum, the world’s most famous steam locomotive, Flying Scotsman, will return to steam and the main line.

There will also be a new company running rather more modern trains on the East Coast Main Line between Scotland, Yorkshire and London. These services will be branded Virgin East Coast after the company outbid others wishing to run this lucrative line.

Making less visual impact but important nonetheless will be the new study which has been announced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – the official body tasked with promoting competition, making markets work better and preventing monopolies or cartels emerging.

The CMA will examine the desirability and the feasibility of expanding opportunities for more rail competition, with a view to securing greater value for money for passengers and taxpayers and improving the passenger experience. This is in line with the CMA’s legal duty to promote competition for the benefit of consumers. Thankfully, Ministers and Whitehall mandarins cannot interfere.

This comes hot on the heels of the frustrating news, just before Christmas, that the quango in charge of deciding whether to allow more rail competition and choice refused new high speed services on the West Coast Main Line between London, Manchester and Blackpool from 2018; some of these services would then have taken the newly- electrified Pennine line to Leeds via Huddersfield.

This decision, by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) flew in the face of the Government stated desire to see more on-track competition and contradicts Network Rail, the company which owns and manages Britain’s railways which said it was happy to accommodate the new services.

But, at last, it looks like there will now be a chance to expose and stop the draconian and outdated approach from the ORR and others in Whitehall.

These new high speed non-franchised “open access” services were to operate in direct competition with Virgin and other franchised rail services such as Northern and TransPennine Express services. They would have become a staple benefit to the Government’s so-called “Northern Powerhouse” ambitions.

Earlier this month some revealing statistics were published by the ORR. In their annual report on the railways’ finances they disclosed that only one of the UK’s long distance high speed lines did not need any Government money to support its operations; this was East Coast. Importantly this is the only long distance rail operator which faces on-track competition from Yorkshire based open access operators like Grand Central and Hull Trains.

It demolishes the argument that such rivalry on the railways will always lead to the “cherry-picking” of services by the smaller open access operators and the need for the franchise to increasingly rely on more government subsidy to survive.

Of equal importance are the latest Which? and Passenger Focus surveys which revealed both Grand Central and Hull Trains scored top in the passenger satisfaction rankings out of all UK train companies.

Open access services have delivered lower fares, more routes, happier passengers, better trains and pose no threat to the viability of the railway. Importantly, on the East Coast Main Line, Rail’s Second Chance research showed that where the franchise competes directly with the rival, fares are lower, stations are busier and overall revenue is higher with more routes served.

The ORR’s decision, announced in the dying embers of 2014, to reject long distance high speed competition on Britain’s longest railway is a blow for those rail travellers in the North West who were anticipating enjoying the same choice in long distance high speed travel as their neighbours in Yorkshire. Why have they been left with no choice and thus no fare competition?

Interestingly, Hull Trains are now applying to also serve Beverley which would provide direct London trains to a new rail market in East Yorkshire.

In a Commons debate in January the Rail Minister, Claire Perry, responding to the blocking of the new West Coast services said she agreed that open access had much to contribute to the railways but indicated unelected officials had won the day and stopped the proposed new trains.

This has been an unsatisfactory chapter for the Office of Rail Regulation and the Department for Transport. Hopefully the outcome will bode well for passengers, with lower fares and better trains and at last will encourage politicians to make sure that civil servants work to deliver a more customer friendly railway.”

To read the original article, visit the Yorkshire Post website

Date Added: Wednesday 25th February 2015