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Business Comment

James Moore: Still on the wrong lines over our railways, but no doubt we'll grin and bear it

DfT has threatened to make Homer Simpson look like a fully paid-up member of Mensa

Outlook There are still some people who take it as an article of faith that the private sector will always do things better than the state sector in this country.

If you were to research their personal histories, however, you would be likely to find out that they had managed to avoid any contact with Britain's railways over the past 20 years. Unless, that is, they happened to sit on the Conservative benches in Parliament.

Yes, despite large swathes of the population holding the view that their lives would be improved with all the railways back in state hands, the Department for Transport yesterday announced that it plans to hand the bit of it in the public sector to a franchisee in the hopes that this time whichever operator is chosen won't muck it up.

The East Coast rail franchise is up for grabs before it does too much more to make the case for those arguing for re-nationalisation of more franchises.

Transport minister Patrick McLoughlin, below, yesterday sought to appease his critics by pledging that things will be different this time. He argued that ministers and their officials have "learned a lot". You'd certainly hope so. It's just that the Department for Transport has frequently threatened to make Homer Simpson look like a fully paid-up member of Mensa during the more than two decades of rail franchising .

We've had the West Coast Mainline debacle, the collapse of Railtrack, the re-nationalisation of the aforementioned East Coast franchise, and, grimly, a couple of really nasty accidents. Not to mention trains full of furious passengers forced to pay through the nose for shoddy services, and an unquantifiable amount of economic damage caused by the fact that using the rail network to get from A to B is not only unreliable but ruinously expensive, particularly when compared to the situation that prevails on the Continent.

Perhaps with an eye on the popular discontent generated by the railways, the DfT has waffled on about how, under its new franchising process, operators will have to show they put passengers first before being handed the keys.

The trouble is, as the Campaign for Better Transport has pointed out, it's very hard to believe that the DfT won't simply opt for the cheapest option when presented with the all bids. If, that is, it can make a decent stab at which bid is the cheapest. As the West Coast Mainline debacle demonstrated, that's not always easy for DfT civil servants and their ministers to do.

Not to worry, though. In the end, passengers will probably just shrug their shoulders and put up with it, as they've done in the past. And as for the economy, well, it can surely take one for the team. Can't it?