Comment: Turkeys home to roost after great rail sell-off

The gyrations yesterday in the share prices of Prism and Go-Ahead are a timely reminder that rail privatisation may not prove to be the one-way bet it once seemed. The cause of the panic was a report by a former Coopers & Lybrand man suggesting that of the 25 passenger franchises let by Sir George Young, Prism and Go-Ahead have contrived between them to pick up the five turkeys.

Tim Powell, who now runs his own transport consultancy, reckons that, even on the most optimistic assumptions about revenue growth, the five franchises will lose money and, if his least optimistic scenario comes to pass, the industry could be coming back to the next government cap in hand asking for another pounds 1.5bn in subsidy to add to the pounds 8bn it has already pocketed.

You can quibble with his methodology (Prism and Go-Ahead, surprise, surprise, reckon the spur of private enterprise will grow income at double the rate assumed by Mr Powell). You can also question the provenance of his report which was produced for Save our Railways, a trade union-backed organisation dedicated to fighting rail privatisation.

But what is harder to argue with is the central message of his analysis. This is that the operators who will do well are the ones who got in early and snapped up franchises for a song before Sir George cottoned on to quite what a gravy train he had set in motion.

Stagecoach may be making a poor fist out of running South West Trains but it could end up making pounds 478m profit by the time its seven-year franchise ends. Conversely, the operators who will do worst are, in the main, those who arrived later or whose subsidies are not matched by equally large passenger revenues. The squeeze comes because income needs to rise at a much higher rate than subsidies fall in order to produce a profit.

The alternative of taking a hatchet to controllable costs, manpower in the main, has been undermined by SWT's unhappy discovery that it is hard to run a train service without drivers. Cynical franchisees could make enough money in the first couple of years to recoup their investment before the reductions in subsidy begin to bite.

The government would then have the unenviable choice of forking out more support or finding someone else to run the railways. But this, in all likelihood, will not be Sir George's problem.

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