Tony Lodge: Competition is rail’s ticket to the future

Tony Lodge writes on the 25th anniversary of rail privatisation and looks what more needs to be done in a piece for the Yorkshire Post, published 12 August 2017.

“John Major’s railway White Paper in the summer of 1992 pledged to deliver “more competition, greater efficiency and a wider choice of services more closely tailored to what customers want”.

It was right then and is right now but Conservatives have so far delivered an unsatisfactory halfway house where most passengers don’t enjoy this trumpeted choice and competition.

The political and sector opportunities of finally delivering on this are huge if Ministers look at the latest passenger satisfaction survey and consider the results.

At London King’s Cross the main train franchise, Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC), faces stiff competition from two non-franchised high-speed ‘open access’ train operators on inter-city services between London, Yorkshire and the North East.

These trains all compete on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) and record the highest passenger satisfaction ratings anywhere in the country. Hull Trains comes top with 97 per cent, followed by York based Grand Central on 94 per cent and VTEC with 91 per cent.

Grand Central and Hull Trains also came top on value for money, reliability, punctuality and getting a seat.

The message is clear; when passengers have real choice, and train companies face competition on the same track, then operators raise their game. It is a clear and unarguable fact that they deliver better services at competitive fares because they have to fight for passengers. This rivalry has also delivered innovations such as free wi-fi, special flexible ticket deals and new routes as operators look to serve extra towns and cities to boost their offering. 

The open-access operators have connected places with London which lost their direct rail services years ago under British Rail as well as directly competing with the franchise on the same track at places like York, Bradford, Doncaster, Hull and London.

But why is such competition not network-wide? Why are Ministers afraid of encouraging and delivering this model across the railways?

At Paddington, the Great Western franchise enjoys a complete monopoly on services across vast swathes of western England and Wales and endures one of the lowest satisfaction scores.

Consequently, there is no competition on long-distance fares where only 48 per cent of passengers think tickets are value for money.

All future rail franchise bidders should now be told to expect some level of future competition which Ministers should actively encourage.

Such a change in policy would deliver real choice for passengers, expose Jeremy Corbyn’s flawed calls for renationalisation and finally deliver on the Conservatives’ pledges made a generation ago.”

Read Tony’s full piece on the Yorkshire Post website.

Tony Lodge is a CPS research fellow and the author of Rail’s Second Chance – putting competition back on track.

Date Added: Saturday 12th August 2017