Paul Vallely: Euston, we have a problem

There are only two ways to make more money from the railways - increase fares or cut staff

Share
Related Topics

I wrote to a local MP last week, not something I do often. Graham Brady is chairman of the Tory 1922 Committee, as well as the member for Altrincham and Sale West, so I thought he might be able to do something about what was alarming me. He didn't reply; perhaps he knew it was already too late.

The reason for my impulsive engagement with the political process was a rumour that I'd heard circulating in south Manchester, where I live. It was that the Government was about to remove the West Coast train line, which joins us to the capital, from Virgin Trains, which runs it rather well, and give it to a company with a reputation for much worse service.

When I left London for the North well over a decade ago, returning to the metropolis for the occasional day trip required the kind of effort associated with launching an expeditionary force. Trains were run-down, infrequent and unpunctual, the staff grumpy and demoralised. You got back home exhausted.

But after some initial bumps in the track Virgin Rail has transformed the railway into a clean, quiet, comfortable service. Trains run to London every 20 minutes: if you miss one, by the time you've had a coffee the next has arrived. The fastest do the journey in under two hours. The staff are efficient and friendly. Above all, the trains almost always leave and arrive on time. Small wonder that Virgin has doubled its travellers. And its smoked salmon and scrambled egg breakfast is almost worth getting out of bed for. If you get the early morning red-eye to Euston you can be at a 9am meeting before some of the Londoners.

This matters beyond Manchester because the decision to drop Virgin illustrates the priorities of this Government: short-termism, a myopic focus on the bottom line and a disregard for those who bear the consequences. Hence a decision incomprehensible to those who regularly use the route.

There was no tie-less Richard Branson, and certainly none of his airline-style stewardesses in evidence at Stockport station at 7am on Thursday, the morning after the Government announced its decision to award the West Coast franchise to the transport giant FirstGroup, which carries more than 2.5 billion passengers a year in the UK and North America – with, from many accounts, scant regard for the best interests of the travelling public.

But there were plenty of Graham Brady's constituents on the platform, some of them reading in their Daily Telegraph the revelation that the Department for Transport had rated Virgin's bid as more "deliverable" than FirstGroup's. The latter had offered more trains, more seats and lower fares, but on projections of growth in passenger numbers that seem very unrealistic. Yet ministers had ignored that and dumped Virgin.

The mood at the station was glum. The staff feared FirstGroup's hidden agenda was job cuts. The passengers read accounts of First's existing services in the West Country, Scotland and London. The tales were of dirty, overcrowded trains, poor punctuality, last-minute cancellations and journeys to London in some cases slower than in Victorian times. "The contempt... for its passengers is palpable," one passenger moaned.

Even allowing for standard British levels of whingeing, the anxiety was that First's promises – of more trains, more seats and lower fares – rang somewhat hollow. It felt like what railway workers call a Spad: a signal passed at danger.

There are only two ways to make more money from the railways – to increase revenues or to cut costs. FirstGroup has predicted 7 per cent more passengers every year for the next 14 years, which seems wildly optimistic off the back of a double-dip recession. That means fare increases, or job losses. Or both. And, if the passengers and revenue forecasts in Virgin's bid prove correct, First will make losses which could top £1.5bn by the end of the franchise.

Something similar has happened twice on the East Coast line. There, both GNER and National Express, consecutively, outbid Virgin. Each found it couldn't make a profit. They handed the keys back to the Government, and the outdated and under-funded line is now nationalised. Those who fear that First will do something similar point out that it, quite legally, recently pulled the plug on its contract to run Great Western when £800m in payments to the Exchequer fell due. Mr Brady's constituents could be forgiven for thinking that this is all an accident waiting to happen.

There is something more alarming. The Government has asked for a bond from First that will be forfeit if it walks away. But this is only £245m and, if Virgin's figures are right, faced with a £1.5bn loss First executives might feel that is a pricing worth paying.

So, if things turn out well, the private sector takes the profits; if things go wrong, the taxpayer will pick up most of the bill. Sounds like the massive bank bail-out, or the G4S Olympic debacle, all over again. To rework a phrase from an Apollo 13 moon flight astronaut, Euston, we have a problem. And if the train service deteriorates, and the Liberal Democrat vote collapses at the next election as expected, so might Graham Brady.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game