Rail Re-franchising: Be careful what you wish for!

Following in the wake of the moan about Virgin Trains, a good item regarding the re-franchising of rail services was broadcast in today’s BBC Radio 4 consumer affairs programme, “You and Yours”.

Here’s a BBC iPlayer link to the article – may not work outside the UK, and will expire in the fullness of time.

Tony Miles, a contributor to the rail industry magazine, Modern Railways, explained that the Government will be re-letting a number of UK passenger railway franchises in the coming years, and that a number of European state-owned railway companies are not only showing interest in UK rail franchises, but are already proving successful in winning them, such as the impending takeover of services out of Liverpool Street by Abellio, the International commercial arm of the Dutch railway company, NS, who already operate services in the North of England under a JV with Serco (Northern Rail and Merseyrail).

The Europeans are interested in grabbing a slice of the British pie for two main reasons, firstly because there is some money to be made, and secondly because the privatisation, franchising or deregulation of their home markets is proceeding at a slow pace.

Miles states in the interview that one of the main reasons given by the DfT to unsuccessful franchisees for the recent Greater Anglia win by Abellio was that the Dutch operator basically offered HM Govt more money over the course of the franchise than the other bidders, even though it’s been reported that in some areas the Abellio bid contained fewer “nice to haves” – concentrating instead a more basic and streamlined service provided on a tightly-run ship. (Could that be the definitition of an “austerity rail franchise”?)

One of the franchises out for renewal during 2012 will be the IC West Coast franchise – the Intercity services out of London Euston to the West Midlands, North West and Scotland – currently held by Virgin Trains.

Both Abellio, and France’s SNCF (through it’s commercial subsidiary Keolis, already a UK player through Govia, a JV with UK bus operator GoAhead, and a shareholding in TransPennine Express), have made it to the shortlist, along with the UK’s First Group and a renewal bid from Virgin.

While I’ve bemoaned (along with many others) that Virgin’s Pendolinos aren’t the most passenger friendly trains in the UK, and that Virgin has an unfortunate habit of over-promising and under-delivering their advertised service, the article did highlight that on a French TGV, there aren’t any frills or enhancements, no lavish customer service, 1st Class only buys you a slightly nicer seat, and this might be the sort of stripped-down, no-frills high-speed service landing on the WCML if SNCF win the bid. It’s therefore cold comfort that the French nowadays joke about “sandwich TGV” in the same way as 1970’s working mens’ clubs used to guffaw to gags about curly British Rail sandwiches. True, if the service were so stripped down, there would be nothing to complain about other the than the train arriving late or being cancelled, but at the same time, I can’t imagine the prices being similarly stripped down!

When asked by the programme host if he’d gamble on the winner of the franchise, Miles said he’d bet a small amount of money on Virgin keeping hold of the services out of Euston.

Virgin have said that they plan to submit an impressive bid in order to renew the WCML franchise. If I were given the choice, I too hope they win, in a case of “better the devil you know”, if only because 14 years (the length of the new franchise from 2012) is a long time to have a “no-frills” operation providing one of the UK’s premier routes.

Virgin haven’t done a bad job, but they need to either tone down their promises so that passengers don’t set high expectations which simply can’t be delivered, or concentrate harder on being able to consistently provide the marketed service, while all potential operators for WCML need to have plans for addressing the frequent moans regarding passenger comfort on the Pendolino fleet which forms the backbone of the Intercity service out of Euston.

Sadly, I suspect even if such plans were to happen, it will be several years, likely the first heavy refurbishment of the Pendolino fleet, before anything can be done about the sketchy toilets and their smell, the haywire heating, the existance of some really bum seats, and other industrial design faux-pas which have taken the shine away from what should theoretically be a good product.

I suppose the moral of this story is “Be careful what you wish for!”