Comment: Rail competition faces tough barriers

When Connex South Central can axe 350 rail services a week with complete impunity, then surely the day when the privatised train operators start to face competition for their passengers cannot arrive a moment too soon.

The Rail Regulator, John Swift QC, may be thinking this as he prepares to issue a consultation paper next week asking for views on how quickly the 25 train operating companies created through privatisation should start to lose their monopolies. When the previous government was fattening up the industry for sale the last thing it could afford was to allow competition on the same routes from day one, so each franchisee received a period of exclusivity.

However, all that is due to change in 1999 when open access, to use the dreadful regulese, arrives in a limited way. In theory, that will allow up to 20 per cent of rail services in each franchise area to be thrown open to competition with rival operators using the same track to offer competing services.

As things stand, there is already a modest degree of competition on the railways - partly by dint of the way the franchise map was drawn up. Passengers have a choice of three services from central London to Gatwick, there are two competing services to Birmingham and there is even limited competition for passengers travelling to Scotland between InterCity West Coast and Great North Eastern.

In practice, the amount of extra competition produced by open access is likely to be small. If Connex South Central could not make a go of its new Metro service into the capital in an area not well served by the Tube and with pounds 75m of subsidies a year, then who else is going to be tempted to have a go?

There will be some areas of the network where operators will be tempted to cherry pick. Richard Branson's Virgin, which already operates the west coast line, may try its hand at running services up the east coast, for instance, not least because it will have a shiny new pounds 750m fleet of tilting trains at its disposal.

But others will be less keen on competition. There are two barriers. One is practical - there are only so many trains that can use the same piece of track before disaster overtakes the network. The other is political. The new Government is more interested in promoting an integrated transport system answerable to passengers' needs than encouraging competition willy nilly. The last thing it wants is a repetition of the experience that befell the bus industry with predatory pricing and operators leapfrogging one another's services to gain a competitive edge.

The simplest way to increase rail services would be to impose higher minimum service levels on the operators. It was never satisfactory that they got away without even having to operate existing timetables when the franchises were let. Unfortunately, the only way to make this palatable would be either to extend the franchises or pump more subsidies into the network. All in all a tricky one for the rail regulator and his political overlord John Prescott.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Guru Careers: Management Accountant

£27 - 35k + Bonus + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Management Accountant is needed ...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power