Planning Politics Train operators

Little change for East Coast Main Line franchise

In terms of destinations, the East Coast Main Line franchise today is pretty much the same as when GNER took over from British Rail in 1996. The new company added Skipton, and Bradford has been dropped but from King’s Cross it’s still chiefly Leeds and Edinburgh to which East Coast trains run. (Recent operators have also retained BR’s timetable habit of dispatching hourly Tyne Valley trains just minutes before a London train arrives!)

It’s true that frequencies have been increased and so many more trains are running, with many more passengers travelling, but the drive towards clock face timetables has all but extinguished of providing more regional towns and cities with direct links to London.

Lincoln’s service is a vestige of what was promised and the wealthy spa town of Harrogate still only  has one daily train each way. It’s been left to open access operators such as Hull Trains and Grand Central to push the boundaries of East Coast Main Line services, obstructed all the way by government and incumbent franchisee.

The range of EC services should now be changing with the release of the Department for Transport’s invitation to tender for the next EC franchise, to start on March 1 2015 and run for nine years. The ITT makes specific mention that bidders “may choose to serve” Huddersfield, Middlesbrough, Scarborough, Sunderland via Newcastle and Harrogate via York. (In the ITT, DfT tells bidders to assume that open access operations remain at current levels, which makes clear the government’s view of OA expansion.)

There is grand talk in the DfT’s 149-page document. Phrases such as “deliver consistently high standards”, “grow new markets, spread demand, increase seat utilisation, simplify ticketing” and “deliver sustainable, long term socio-economic benefits” all appear in DfT’s objectives for the new deal. It also calls for value for the taxpayer. This is the nub of the new deal – growing takes investment and that takes money away from government’s premium cheque, at least in the short-term.

The winner will need to introduce Hitachi’s IEP trains to the route and help Network Rail introduce ERTMS cab-signalling. It will also have to accede to NR’s expansionist station policy by transferring to direct NR control Newcastle and York stations.

The DfT’s competition for the West Coast franchise collapsed in 2012 amid problems surrounding financial evaluation and risks. For East Coast bids, the ITT explains that they will be classed as financially a high-risk if “the ratio calculated in Sheet FO&C Row 152 of the Financial Templates (‘the Financial Ratios’) is projected to breach 1.050”. I asked DfT what this meant and it said: “Broadly this means that for every £1 of expected expenditure, the franchisee should have at least £1.05 of expected money coming in.”

Very Micawberish. Risk remains in the eye of the beholder. The DfT puts it like this: “Ultimately, the key factor in making risk adjustments will be the Department’s reasonable view of what constitutes the most credible financial outcome, taking into account all relevant information available to it.” I think that translates into: “If we don’t believe your figures, we’ll change them.”


By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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