Nationalised railways can be brilliant: that is the conclusion to draw from the Department for Transport's latest pronouncement. Four years ago this week, National Express handed back the keys for the East Coast Main Line franchise. The Government took the train operation back into the public sector. Today, punctuality on the route connecting London King's Cross with Yorkshire, North-East England and Scotland is better than at any time this century, which helps to explain why East Coast Trains has enticed passengers from the airlines.
Crunch the DfT's numbers, and you discover that, on an average day, East Coast carries 2,600 more passengers than did National Express – a rise of 5.5 per cent. Revenue has grown twice as fast, partly because passengers are choosing to upgrade to First Class. Previously, says the DfT, the posh seats had been in "steep decline". Improved food and drink and Wi-Fi, coupled to expert revenue management, spurred a "significant increase in the number of First Class journeys". Public-private competition is thriving, with travellers able to choose between East Coast and its "open access" rivals, Grand Central and First Hull Trains. Staff sickness at East Coast has halved under public ownership. And Sky 1 is broadcasting a TV reality show about the train operator. This shows the confidence that the management has in its workforce and day-to-day operations, and reveals that the railway has become something of a national treasure.
The taxpayer bankrolls the railways even if he or she never goes near a train. On the average line, each £1 paid by passengers is matched by a pound from the Treasury. In contrast, East Coast has been handing back an average of £4m a week. East Coast Trains is manifestly not broke. But it is about to be fixed anyway. Unhappily, the DfT's praise is contained in the very document that spells the end for East Coast Trains as we know and (mostly) love it.
The Transport Secretary pronounces the death sentence in his introduction to the InterCity East Coast Prospectus. The line, says Patrick McLoughlin, "is now ready to be transformed by the private sector".
His department insists: "State control of rail services is considered to represent poorer value for money, restrict investment and therefore growth and to import risk to the taxpayer." Accordingly, in 15 months' time a textbook example of a public service operated for the good of the travelling public will be re-privatised.
Virgin Trains and Eurostar are in the running to take over, but their hands are tied about the innovations that they can bring. You may recall the fuss last month when the RMT union got hold of a leaked copy of the prospectus. The draft document referred to a new intermediate class between First and Standard. Mischievously, though, Labour cast the option as inviting bidders to create a new underclass.
Mary Creagh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said: "David Cameron says we're all in this together but if that's true then why is he going back to the 1950s and reintroducing third class? East Coast passengers deserve better than this."
Travellers deserve better from the Opposition than wilfully misrepresenting the not-unreasonable idea of a "premium economy" service.
Ms Creagh and the RMT General Secretary, Bob Crow, may be gratified to read a line from the DfT in the prospectus that is clearly aimed at assuaging public fears: "We would be unlikely to consider any variation which delivers a worsening of passenger experience such as a reduction in passenger or luggage space."
That's a shame, because I don't think the travelling public fears "Third Class"; indeed, many of us would welcome it. As the French train operator, SNCF, has shown with its "no-frills" option, called Ouigo, there is an appetite for high-speed, low-cost travel. SNCF stripped out luggage space from a few of its TGVs, packed in more seats and borrowed some ideas from Ryanair: operating from a station some distance from Paris, insisting on passengers printing their own tickets, and charging for anything more than a modest amount of luggage. For the 500-mile journey from Marne-la-Vallée to Marseille, the typical one-way fare, booking about a week ahead, is only €25. And that takes you from Disneyand Paris to the Med in just over three hours.
The "proper" TGVs on the Grandes Lignes from the beautiful Gare de Lyon in Paris continue to attract business travellers and tourists who don't need the faff of an out-of-town connection and are prepared to pay perhaps 60 per cent more to avoid it, while price-sensitive passengers are lured back to the chemin de fer from the autoroute (not to mention Ryanair).
Despite the absence of a proper third-class option for Britain, there are plenty of opportunities to trade time for fare savings. Virgin Trains links London and Birmingham in just 84 minutes, but when researching this week's 48 Hours story I opted for Chiltern Railways. It takes a quarter-hour longer, and the southern end is a little off-centre at Marylebone rather than Euston station. But fares are typically half those on Virgin – and Wi-Fi comes free.
Virgin Trains could lure me back, though, by extending a loyalty scheme that is simple and neat: upgrade four times to Weekend First, and the fifth ride in the posh seats – along with lots of leg room, Wi-Fi, snacks and drinks – is free. This deal cuts the effective cost of an upgrade from £15 to £12. At present a trial is running from Manchester to London. Given the crowds in Standard, and the empty seats in First, let's hope that it is soon rolled out across the network for the benefit of all passengers.