Mark Leftly: No point reversing to the 1990s on rail franchising if the model is so flawed

Outlook Ah, the 1990s… MC Hammer, puffa jackets, grunge, Gazza's tears, This Life, the private finance initiative, negative equity, high interest rates and John Major desperately clinging on to his premiership.

Why on earth the Coalition is determined to take us back to those years I don't know, but determined it is.

This is best demonstrated by David Cameron's decision to split the nation asunder with a referendum on Europe, pandering to the right-wing of his party and opening up a complicated debate on the incredibly simplistic terms that so (badly) informed the political rhetoric of the John Major years.

However, as Europhiles unsubtly hint that those who want out of the EU are jingoistic, while the sceptics depict pro-Europeans as unpatriotic surrender monkeys, the real time travel might actually be taking place in the Department for Transport.

The department's permanent secretary, Philip Rutnam, is understood to have handed secretary of state Patrick McLoughlin a proposal outlining how to overhaul rail franchising in the wake of the West Coast Mainline debacle.

As a quick reminder, that saw FirstGroup beat Virgin to the contract, only for the government to terminate the selection process at a cost of £40m when it discovered that civil servants hadn't done their sums correctly.

Few know what Mr Rutnam has suggested, but there is a growing sense that he might be advocating the re-establishment of some form of Office of Passenger Rail Franchising.

The Transport Select Committee is already pushing for the return of this arm's length body, with the argument that it would bring greater commercial expertise and ensure that there is no repeat of West Coast, an experience that nearly saw the government sued by Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson.

This office was a big feature of the 1990s privatisation of the railways, with director John O'Brien famously selling 25 franchises in less than two years ahead of Labour's election victory in 1997.

Then Transport Secretary John Prescott had vowed to get rid of the office in an attempt to overturn what he saw as the sharper edges of privatisation, eventually succeeding in getting franchising rolled into the Strategic Rail Authority.

Eventually franchise decisions ended up back in the department and now wresting control from civil servants who have never worked in the business world is exactly the right response to West Coast, according to several industry figures I've spoken to.

Others, though, might call this passing the buck, ensuring that mandarins can never again be blamed for making miscalculations which are based on a deeply flawed model that sees train operators forecast profit and passenger numbers 10 or 15 years into the future.

Even the most gifted of Mayan psychics could not have foretold the events that could impact those numbers.

Just look at Channel Tunnel Rail Link builder London & Continental Railways, which nearly went bust in the 1990s partly because its initial revenue forecasts couldn't possibly have accounted for the emergence and impact of low-cost airlines.

The right start for franchising reform is not pushing decisions elsewhere, but accepting that the rail franchising system is based on figures that might as well have been plucked out of the air, if they haven't been already.

There's no point trying to re-establish a sepia-tinged 1990s if the building blocks of rail franchising – and, for that matter, Europe – are not restructured first.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Déjà vu: David Tennant returns to familiar territory with Anna Gunn (‘Breaking Bad’)
tvReview: Something is missing in Gracepoint, and it's not just the familiar names
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • 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

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £32,000+

£18000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?