Friday, 28 November 2014

Profits before people

Photos: Clive Simpson
It’s all railways in this neck of the woods at the present. The past six months have seen major work by Network Rail to upgrade the local track, signalling and level crossings on the relatively under-used GNGE line across rural Lincolnshire between Peterborough and Lincoln.

All this is not for the benefit of the poorly served rural community with more commuter passenger trains to Peterborough and Lincoln.

It's to pave the way for goods trains currently using the main east coast line between London and Edinburgh to be diverted cross-country and thus free up more space on the fast track for lurative passenger traffic.

With its six level crossings and a railway line that splits off the area’s vast new housing developments from the services of the town centre, the true impact of frequent goods trains passing through the market town of Spalding remains to be seen.

 Network Rail reckons its multi-million pound investment will mean just six daytime and six over night good trains a day. All will become clearer once diversions start from the middle of December.

This week we have also learned that Virgin Trains and Stagecoach are to take over the running of passenger trains on the east coast mainline from next spring after being awarded the franchise for the re-privatised line.

The new company will be known as Inter City Railways, a separate joint venture 90 per cent owned by Stagecoach but with the trains being branded Virgin Trains East Coast. Sir Richard Branson retains a 10 per cent stake.

This is pertinent to Spalding too because the local line connects directly with mainline Peterborough and thus could be very convenient for the residents of South Lincolnshire wanting to travel to London or further afield by train.

In truth, those of us in the area and using Peterborough as our gateway both north and south have - once we’ve arrived in Peterborough by car - had a good run over the past five years or so with the inter city service provided by East Coast.

The line ended up depending less on public subsidies than any of the 15 privately run rail franchises elsewhere in the country and the franchise has proved a lucrative cash cow for the state, bringing in around £1bn to the exchequer since 2009.

East coast is no stranger to the rail franchising controversy. For some, its public ownership has been a rather embarrassing success story - a stark contrast to the general disaster of railway privatisation that is so often an Achilles’s heel for free-market ideologues.

Handing east coast to Stagecoach and Virgin represents an ‘up yours’ to British public opinion, which largely despairs of our over-crowded, fragmented and rip-off rail network.

According to a YouGov poll last year, two-thirds of people in the UK believe railway companies should be run in the public sector, with less than a quarter opting for privatisation.

And that is not just Labour supporters, either. More than half of Tory voters opted for public ownership, and pretentious Ukip voters also say they are more likely to support a nationalised network.

The government’s dogmatic policy could hardly be more divorced from the pragmatic commonsense of the British people - but then we know there is an election just around the corner.

And things could have been worse. Instead of being run by a tax exile and a Scottish businessman - the latter perhaps best known for campaigning against gay equality - the whole east coast line could have fallen into foreign hands.

For the record, about three-quarters of Britain's railways are now run in full or part by subsidiaries of foreign, state-owned rail firms, including DeutscheBahn's Arriva, the Dutch-owned Abellio and Keolis, 70 per cent owned by France’s SNCF. Our government is also preparing to sell its stake in Eurostar, almost certainly to the SNCF, the majority owner.

Unsurprisingly, Mick Cash, the acting general secretary of the RMT rail union, described re-privatisation as nothing short of a national disgrace.

“While domestic public ownership puts money back into the coffers that can be reinvested in our railways, the private operators, overwhelmingly owned and controlled by European state rail outfits, suck out colossal sums in subsidies and profits,” he says. “That’s what privatisation means.”

One thing is for sure - by the time of the election in May 2015 we’ll have a much clearer idea of whether Inter City Railways is really delivering the kind of services it has promised.

And the people of Spalding will either be grid-locked with frustration or celebrating the fact that traffic chaos in the town was something of the past. Oh, and did I mention that the town’s MP John Hayes is the government’s transport minister?

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