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.

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home