#NorthernFail – or why the Ordsall Chord hasn’t saved us

The past 14 days have been a torrid time for the North’s rail commuters – widespread cancellations, heavy delays, overcrowding, short-formed trains with fewer coaches than planned, and timetable changes that have made some journeys longer rather than shorter, or even no-longer possible.

The alleged cause is the rollout of a new timetable on 20th May which was intended to exploit recently electrified routes, and a new piece of railway in the Manchester Area, the Ordsall Chord. It was intended to help increase capacity on some key routes, and increase some through journey opportunities.

However the results have been quite the opposite.

A Brief History Lesson

For a long time, Manchester’s railways were basically broken up into a North network, centred around Victoria, and a South network, focused on Piccadilly. Drivers and Guards were similarly split, and so a driver from the North Manchester network (whether they were based at Victoria, or further out such as Wigan, Preston or Blackpool) didn’t have need to know the routes of the South network, and vice versa, because their trains didn’t go there.

Drivers and Guards knew the various routes which connected the two parts of the network, for the rare number of trains which crossed between them (mostly empty carriage moves), but that was all.

This changed in 1988 with the opening of the Windsor Link – this bridged the network from the North West of Manchester – the lines from Wigan, Bolton and Preston – with the lines into Manchester Piccadilly. It was part of the fulfilment of a long held ambition of the city to reduce the need for passengers to shuffle between Piccadilly and Victoria, the other being the opening of the Metrolink system in 1992.

This emphasised the importance of Piccadilly as Manchester’s primary station, and a significant number of trains were switched over from using Victoria over the years following the link opening. Coupled with the Metrolink taking over the Bury line, this facilitated the downsizing of Victoria from the enormous 17 platform station into the smaller 6 platform station of today, and the construction of the Manchester Arena over the remainder of the Victoria site. This was also against a backdrop of rail travel falling in popularity since the 1960s.

The Windsor Link, concentration of primary services in Piccadilly, and reduction of Victoria to a secondary station was planned against these expectations, rather than the burgeoning demand we see now, 30 years later.

Oxford Road becomes “edge of the world” for some Train Crew

For operational convenience, when the Windsor Link became operational, many services from the North side of Manchester were joined up with those from the South side. From a marketing perspective, this facilitated new “through journey opportunities”, with no need for a passenger to change train, or only change once – though actually these seemed to be of niche value (e.g. Blackpool to Buxton, or Wigan to Chester via Stockport) and seldom exploited until the opening of the line to Manchester Airport in 1993.

The through working also helped the operational railway boost rolling stock utilisation, as trains spent less time “turning around” at Piccadilly and Victoria.

However, some of the Train Crew remained quite firmly “North” and “South”, and where this was the case they changed crew over at Oxford Road if the train was to cross or had crossed the Windsor Link. This is an important point, as this arrangement somewhat persists through to the present day for a number of trains. It has changed somewhat over time with the addition of the line to Manchester Airport which opened in 1993, and some “classically North” depots such as Wigan did (and I believe still do) sign routes as far South as Crewe via Wilmslow, while “South” depots such as Buxton know the way to Blackpool North, but there are still a number of crew changes needed at Oxford Road, even today.

This 30 year old legacy explains why there have been numerous reports of all the platforms being blocked by trains waiting for relieving crew at Oxford Road.

Uncontainable Damage

The other thing that the Windsor Link enabled is for delays and cancellations to spread between the previously separated North and South networks.

Even if a train appeared to the passenger to only operate in the North network (e.g. Bolton to Manchester Victoria), the coaches could have worked in a disrupted South network earlier in the day, or have become delayed behind some other late running service off the South network.

Previously, reactionary delays could be relatively well contained to the side of the network that the root-cause originated on.

The addition of the Ordsall Curve now allows delays and cancellations from the North East of Manchester to spread toward Piccadilly and the South network, in the same way the Windsor Link allowed this to happen with the North network.

So this means it’s important to have plans and procedures in place to contain the spread of disruption to what would be otherwise unaffected lines, or minimise reactionary issues.

What do I mean by that? A good example could be a passenger left confused as to why their Preston to Blackpool train is cancelled because of snow in the Peak District. To the railway operator, this makes sense, because the train started in Buxton and discovered a snow drift near Whaley Bridge. But to the passenger on Preston station, they don’t really understand why it should disrupt them, and nor should they need to.

Slip Sliding Away: Hobbled by Hand-me-downs

The long-awaited electrification of lines in the North West of England is finally happening, some would say over 40 years overdue. Why it wasn’t done as a “follow-on” project to the WCML electrification to Glasgow in 1974 is a question for the politicians of that era.

With the extra overhead wires comes a fleet of “new” trains – except they aren’t really new, they are “cascaded” from their previous sphere of operation to the North West, given a lick of paint and a tidy up. These are the Class 319 “Northern Electrics” – based on a 1980’s design. These trains were up until recently used on the Thameslink network around London, where again they were largely inadequate for the work they needed to do, and built by BR on a limited budget, thanks to a Government who’s usual reply regarding investment in rolling stock was “You need three trains, but you can only have the money for two.”

The biggest problem with the Class 319 units seems to be they simply can’t keep time on schedules which contain a number of station calls. This is demonstrated by their introduction on the Manchester to Crewe local trains with the timetable change. These contain frequent stops, and the timekeeping is poor. Here the Class 319s actually replaced newer and more advanced Class 323 units, which were proven on the route.

The big difference between the Class 319 and the Class 323 (or a Class 319 and a diesel unit) is the rail equivalent of “rubber on the road”.

In the Class 319, all the traction equipment, and all the powered wheels, are situated under a single coach – one of the two middle coaches. This gives the train 4 powered axles for a 4-coach train, compared to the 323 where it’s the two end (Driving) coaches which contain the powered axles – giving a total of 8 powered axles for just 3 coaches on the 323. In this respect, the 323 is already superior in poor rail conditions by having the driven axles more evenly distributed along the train. That’s without the more advanced features of the Class 323 such as better wheelslip control and regenerative braking.

Even on a 2-car diesel unit, the power is more distributed, there being a total of four driven axles spread throughout – one powered axle on each bogie.

Basically, the Class 319 has long suffered from problems with rail adhesion, even when used in the South of the country.

The unit is basically unsuited to the frequently damp conditions found in the North West of England and frequent stops and starts.

It may be able to keep time on more “express” level journeys, such as Manchester to Blackpool via Wigan, but it presently seems a dubious performer on all-stations work. Things may improve as staff gain handling experience, but it’s doubtful.

This is a situation which may only get worse as Northern were planning to release all their Class 323 trains back to the leasing company at the end of 2018.

Squeezing a Quart into a Pint Pot

This is happening on a number of fronts.

Firstly, infrastructure.

The Ordsall Chord helps in some respects – it removes some of the criss-crossing of trains across the main station throat just south of Manchester Piccadilly. Since the timetable change, fewer trains cross all the way from one side to the other – several of these were TransPennine Express trains between Manchester Airport and the line to Huddersfield, Leeds and beyond. These trains now operate through Oxford Road, take the Ordsall Chord to Victoria, then route up Miles Platting bank and via Ashton to regain the route at Stalybridge – in effect back to “classic” North TransPennine route.

However this does increase some pressure on the the twin-tracked section between Manchester Piccadilly’s platforms 13 and 14, through Oxford Road to Deansgate. At Piccadilly, as there are only two platforms, this limits trains to a bare-minimum of a 4 minute headway – that’s how long is allowed for a train to slow down, arrive at Platform 13 or 14 at Piccadilly, unload and load passengers, and depart. Realistically, this allows a maximum of 12 trains per hour between Piccadilly and Oxford Road if and only if everything is running on time.

This is also why some services from the Deansgate direction are planned to terminate at Oxford Road. There isn’t the space for them on the infrastructure further along.

Secondly, planning.

A number of the detailed working timetables for this timetable change were not available until very late in the day. This is because Network Rail are reportedly under-resourced in the train planning department, especially when a significant “recast” of the plan is requested, as with this timetable change, caused by the delays in completion of the various North West Electrification schemes – Blackpool to Preston was handed back late, and Euxton Jn to Bolton remains incomplete.

Also, the planning on the part of Northern seems to have gone awry. They don’t appear to have enough Drivers or Guards available to provide the booked service, even if they work those they do have as intensely as possible.

Thirdly, Train Crew.

Shortages here seem to be the major cause of the cancellations since the introduction of the new timetable. Part of the reason is that Northern are trying do more, but with the same number of people. It was part of their franchise bid, that they could deliver these new services with no significant increase in the train crew complement.

It’s a common mantra in a lot of companies, you may hear it in your own workplace.

However the fact is that a train driver can only be one place at once. To squeeze the extra trains out, Northern Train Crew diagrammers have had to work the existing crews harder. This has meant cutting back on allowances built into the crew diagrams to handle out-of-course situations – for instance where a driver might get relieved from one train, and have 20 to 30 minutes to wait for their next train, maybe now they only have a few minutes between their trains. Of course, you can now see how if the incoming train is late, the driver might be delayed getting to their next booked train, which then departs late. Eventually this will have reactionary effects with crews and trains out of position.

The other issue which may also be rearing it’s ugly head is route knowledge. We’re back to the Oxford Road “boundary” thing again, for instance the Liverpool Lime St – Crewe trains have to change crew at Oxford Road, as Liverpool drivers don’t know the route to Crewe, while Manchester Picc drivers don’t know the route to Liverpool via Chat Moss.

Employee relations also play a role here. If you think your relationship with Northern as a passenger is currently bad, don’t think it’s all rosy for the employees either. I believe there is currently no valid Rest Day Working agreement in place between the drivers’ union (ASLEF) and Northern.

For a long time, it’s been common for Train Crew members to work some of their days off (Rest Days in rail-speak) to cover for colleagues who were unable to do their booked duty. Maybe it’s due to holidays, sickness, or sometimes it’s because they are at work, but it’s their turn to be in the classroom, learning new routes, learning new trains, or just part of their regular training and assessment processes to ensure they are competent and safe to do their job. It’s some welcome extra cash for the person covering the work, and it ensures service levels are maintained without having to employ too many standby or reserve staff. Sometimes a driver might work a Rest Day in order to attend training sessions.

The lack of an agreement for RDW is no-doubt partially behind the lack of Train Crew and in particular Drivers, and I’m almost certain that any negotiations will be a game of chicken and seeing who flinches first.

What could have been done differently?

The impression I get is that the various management entities, Network Rail, Northern, GTR down South, and even the DfT, chose to doggedly press ahead with rolling out this timetable when clearly there hadn’t been enough preparation, the planning was of dubious quality and appeared to have been rushed, while some things basically just weren’t ready – whether that’s infrastructure or driver training – to deliver the new timetable.

What would have been the most sensible thing to do in these circumstances would be to delay rolling out the new timetable, probably by 8 to 12 weeks, and instead extend the validity of the old timetable.

This has been done before, back in BR days. There was a similar significant change in timetabling and rolling stock disposition enabled by the East Coast Main Line electrification in 1991. The May 1991 timetable change was to herald introduction of electric services to Edinburgh and the cascade of a number of HSTs to cover more “Cross Country” work – i.e. those Intercity services which avoided London.

However, because of the tightly-coupled nature of the various projects, things weren’t ready. The decision was taken by BR to extend the validity of the 1990 timetable through to July, rather than take the risk of the sort of disruption we see now.

So there is a precedent for delaying rollout of a new timetable, however in the privatised railway, I suspect it is more complex than in the days of BR.

Finally, lightning does strike twice!

Remember we started with the Windsor Link?

The 1989 timetable which brought that line into full use became known as the “timetable that failed” to the operators. The service collapsed then for several similar reasons, in particular the over-dependence on good time keeping and maintaining planned station dwell times to keep the core Piccadilly – Castlefield section moving, and little in the way of wiggle room for recovery. Sound familiar?

How was that solved? Basically shifting more services back to Victoria and reducing some of the off-peak services in order to provide a “fire-break” between the morning and evening peaks.

Neither will work in this case – Victoria doesn’t have much spare capacity, the station being massively reduced in size since the early 90s, and there is little scope for reducing service, as many of the paths over the congested Piccadilly – Castlefield section are provided by other operators, such as TransPennine or East Midlands Trains, or used by freight trains to access Trafford Park. They won’t want to give up paths.

It seems that very little in terms of lessons learned from the 1989 experience got applied in the development of the disastrous May 2018 timetable.

Finally, a bit of humour, because if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry…

£75k fine a drop in the ocean for First Group

Train operator First Capital Connect has just been fined £75,000 by a UK judge regarding an incident in which up to 700 passengers were stuck for over 3 hours on a train, partially in a tunnel, with no toilets, no ventilation and minimal lighting.

To a conglomerate such as First, which reported over £200m profits in 2012, this has to be a drop in the ocean, and is an absolutely derisory amount compared to the  – just over £100 per stranded passenger.

It also begs the question about who is going to pay for this. First Group shareholders? Unlikely. It feels more likely to come out of our pockets, as fare increases, reduced franchise payments to the Treasury, or increased subsidy from the DfT.

We can’t change the “token” fine imposed by the judge – it should probably have had an extra couple of zeros on the end, really – but what might be reasonable is an assurance from the First Capital Connect MD David Statham or Group CEO Tim O’Toole that this fine will ring-fenced, such that it is paid entirely out of group surplus, and must not be allowed to impact the travelling public at large.

Better still, maybe they could pay it out of their no doubt generous bonuses, given the buck stops with them?

I’m also wondering how much has actually been learned from this incident, given the “analysis paralysis” that seems to affect rail operating incidents at the moment?

Here’s an idea, Richard… #seatslineupwithwindows

The folks over at Virgin Trains are well-chuffed that they are going to continue to run the West Coast Mainline on a “caretaker” franchise until 2014.

The decision, along with the promise of a review of rail franchising in the UK, also seems to have restored RB’s wavering faith in the system, as he is now appealing to the public for ideas to help Virgin win the 2014 competition.

So, I have a suggestion…

I’m really not a fan of poor industrial design, and think the Pendolino contains a number of design faux-pas which negatively affect the passenger experience, which I’ve written about before.

But, the biggest of these has to be that the seats don’t line up with the windows.

Despite this being cracked by railway engineers as long ago as the 1900s, the view from the window seems to have become a forgotten talent when it comes to putting together modern trains such as the Pendolino.

Fixing the existing problem on the Pendolino won’t be easy. It has significantly less window area that it’s predecessors (or the Voyagers that Virgin also use). Maybe a more sympathetic reconfiguration of the interior, such as moving luggage racks to positions which don’t have a window, will make things better for the existing equipment, which will be approaching it’s mid-life at franchise renewal time.

But, it needs to be one of the things built into the specification when ordering new trains in the future. It will improve the passenger experience by making the train seem more spacious, and help combat the travel-sickness some associate with travelling on the Pendolino.

So, a view outside. Maybe that’s the biggest single improvement that Virgin Trains could deliver. Make the #seatslineupwithwindows.

West Coast Continuation…

…but more wastage could lie ahead.

So, some common sense at the Department for Transport has prevailed, they have extended Virgin Trains’ contract to run the West Coast Main Line trains, following the failure of the recent franchise bid.

As the CEO of rail watchdog Passenger Focus points out, this is generally good for the confidence of the travelling public, who were still convinced that they couldn’t book tickets for journeys post-Virgin in confidence.

But, they’ve only extended it for another 9-12 months. That isn’t long enough for a new specification and full franchise bid to be run.

So, why the short-term extension? Mainly because of EU Competition Law. Apparently, other operators need to be given a fair crack. This means a “short-term” WCML franchise will likely exist, which will run for around 2 to 3 years, while a new competition for the long term franchise is held.

There are legitimate concerns that the short term franchise will be financially unattractive, which implies it will require some sort of subsidy sweetener, some propping up by the taxpayer. It’s also not good for strategic development, as it favours short-term decision making, rather than a long-term vision. There’s also concerns such as uncertain futures for the employees.

How is this ridiculous short-term franchise beneficial for the passenger, the rail industry, and the taxpayer? We may as well go back to steam power and put shovelfuls of £50 notes in the fire. Thanks a lot, Brussels.

West Coast Rail Franchise hits the buffer stops

BBC Breakfast journalist Susannah Reid: “Well, this is all very embarrassing for you.”

Transport Secretary, Patrick McLaughlin: “Yes”

Late last night, the UK Government brought a stop to the controversial Inter City West Coast rail franchise, which had been awarded to First Group, displacing the incumbent franchisee Virgin Trains.

Not only was there criticism that the DfT had awarded the franchise to First largely on the basis that it offered the Treasury more money over the life of the franchise, but that the First bid was also allegedly “lower quality”, while Virgin criticised the First bid as”unsustainable”, suggesting that First’s West Coast operations would go the way of East Coast out of Kings Cross – that First would surrender the the franchise, and the Government would be left to use public money to pick up the pieces.

There was also public outcry and grass-roots “underdog support” for Virgin’s operations, including a massive e-petition to Government to urge investigation and reconsideration of the decision.

Due to give evidence this to the judicial review Virgin had requested, the Government have slammed the brakes on hard, while reportedly some DfT staff members involved in the process have been suspended pending an investigation.

But, this all has a cost to the taxpayer.

Firstly, the Government have said they will need to reimburse costs to the franchise applicants – and this probably means the non-shortlisted companies (Abellio and Veolia) as well as First and Virgin. Branson’s blog said that the recent ICWC bid cost Virgin £14m, just to put the franchise bid together.

So, we’re looking at shelling out something in the region of £50m of public money to the companies who applied for the franchise, to defray their expenses in placing bids.

There’s also the question of who operates the West Coast from December. There’s two main options – 1) Allow Virgin to continue, or 2) Have the DfT directly operate the railway, as on the East Coast route from Kings Cross.

Branson had previously offered to continue running the trains while the decision was reviewed.

If this offer still stands, and is non-prejudicial, it would be foolish of the DfT to squander even more public money by not taking it up.

Update 20.00 3/10/12:

The CEO of Passenger Focus has made a very valid point on his blog: Passenger confidence must be maintained. People are creatures of habit and don’t like uncertainty.

When your staff are your best asset…

All stop on the West Coast yesterday, as a mahoosive signal failure at the important Motherwell signalling centre brought everything to a stand between the Scottish Border and Glasgow and Edinburgh. A number of people were stuck on trains in the affected area, which were unable to move for as long as three hours. Other trains were held at the station stop prior to entering the affected area, such as Carlisle.

One of the stuck people was comedienne Janey Godley, who appeared to be slowly losing her mind despite travelling in First Class, and tried to open up a 140 character at a time dialogue with the @virgintrains twitter person.

Eventually things got on the move again, and while Janey had to settle for sausages as opposed to “sex and mince”, today she did point out the kindness of the on-train crew toward the passengers during the extended delay…

Nicely done by the Virgin Trains’ On-Train staff, who seemed to put a human face on the extended delay. Good to see that staff morale is still relatively high despite the ongoing wrangling over the franchise. Talking of which…

As Virgin Rail Group has applied for a judicial review of the DfT decision to award the “ICWC” franchise to First Group, this has brought the franchise handover date itself of 9th December into question.

We’ve got the Branson offer to continue to run the franchise on a non-profit basis (donating profits to good causes) while the review proceeds.

However, the other option is that the DfT take control of the franchise until such time as it can be awarded and smooth transfer of responsibility can happen, not dissimilar as they had to do with East Coast.

But, ask yourself, is it a good use of public funds to incorporate a new entity to run ICWC on an interim basis (this includes hiring management, etc.), rather than accept Virgin’s offer to keep things on an even keel until a decision can be made.

As long as the VRG offer can be taken on a non-prejudicial basis, could this be delivering best value for the taxpayer?

In any case, spare a thought for the staff caught up in this…

Planes, Trains, and a couple of bus companies from Scotland…

Well, the Great British Public have rallied around the underdog, as per usual, this in the Great Train Sale. There have been huge outpourings of support for Virgin Trains since the news that they would not be running the services out of Euston from December, and there is even an e-petition to urge the Government to look again at the decision which is gaining a lot of support.

It’s also going to be more than a co-incidence that Virgin Atlantic have announced a move into UK domestic operations the week after the news that the WCML franchise would be going to a competitor. Even though there has been speculation that this was on the cards since BA bought UK competitor BMI, and there must have been planning going on in the background, launching when they did has maximised publicity for the new VAA operation, riding the wave of publicity around Richard Branson saying words to the effect “We probably won’t bid for another rail franchise again, unless things change”. Because it’s diversified, Virgin can afford to “walk away”, or at least appear to, and at the same time deliver a parting blow to both the DfT and the incoming WCML franchisee, First Group.

Of course, being the underdog is nothing new to Branson – think of the “Dirty Tricks” affair with BA – so he knows how to play this role pretty well, and the man in the street finds it easy to get behind Branson as being a “people’s champion” versus the dull, bland corporates.

However, what happens next? Well, unless Virgin decide to back off, accept the franchise loss, and decide to compete in the air, it’s going to cost us (and by “us”, I mean the UK taxpayer) even more money:

If the franchise is debated in Parliament as a result of the petition, it will cost the taxpayer money.

If Virgin decide to appeal the decision, and take it to a judicial review, this will cost the taxpayer money.

If the DfT make a u-turn and decide to take the franchise away from First Group, and award it to Virgin, then First will likely want a review of their own, and/or seek compensation. Who’s going to pay for that? The taxpayer. Not First shareholders, not Stagecoach shareholders (remember, they own 49% of VT), not Richard Branson, who I’m thinking was evidently right when he dismissed rail franchising as “insane”.

The whole crazy privatisation, hashed together by the bungling Major Government, of Britain’s railways has cost the taxpayer billions, and delivered minimal benefit to the passenger.

The normal rules of a deregulated market do not apply on the majority of Britain’s railways. There is often no consumer choice other than “take it or leave it” for the majority of rail journeys, as only one operator provides a service. Many attempts at competition and open access have either failed (such as Wrexham & Shropshire), have been blocked because it threatens the incumbent franchisee, or are simply non-starters because there’s insufficient capacity in the infrastructure.

If a rail operator fails, then services aren’t allowed to stop running, because that would have disastrous consequences, instead the Government step in and constitute a quango to run the service, while the private company skulks off.

A bit like bailing out the banks when they screwed up. It’s already been done with the failure of Railtrack, and with a couple of franchises.

So, instead of competition and choice, we have an expensive raft of lawyers, consultants, and contract managers that has evolved to support our dysfunctional railway franchising and track access ecosystem.

For instance, because of the punitive blame-placing system of managing delays on the modern railway, there are teams of people known as “delay attributors” who trace train delays through the system, and work out how they were initially caused. Not so that the cause is avoided in future, so the delays are reduced, but primarily so that someone is “blamed” for the delay, so a settlement plan can push “pretend money” around between Network Rail and the train operators, because at the end of the day, it all likely balances out over time, and little real money actually changes hands.

This even costs money and time at the coal face. Example: A friend who is a Guard for a national operator was harrassed by their manager as to why their train took an extra two minutes between two points on the railway that their train didn’t even stop at. Of course, they had no idea why, because the train didn’t even stop there, and they were busy checking tickets. It left the previous station on time, and the train was on time the next station. Evidently, there was some pressure from a delay attributer on these two minutes even though they had no consequence for those on board the train. How is this a good use of our money?

Of course, this never really translates to benefit for the passenger (or the freight customer) – the various bodies involved in running the trains just point fingers.

There are a number of bodies, including the Bring Back British Rail campaign, who would like to see the railways renationalised, and they may have a point.

Ironically, during the latter years of BR, some elements of the business – such as Intercity – actually delivered a significant surplus. This in turn reduced the taxpayer burden on subsidising those services which required it – the benefit of an integrated company.

There have been attempts to build franchises which use this theory, such as the single First Great Western franchise – this used to be several seperate franchises, a profitable Intercity franchise, and subsidy-dependant commuter and rural services – the idea being a franchised operator can’t just cream off the profitable stuff, and there’s a resultant overall reduction in public subsidy for the commuter and rural services, being buoyed up by revenue from the longer distance services. However, given that First Group are now exercising the break clause in the Great Western franchise, allegedly as it’s no longer viable to pay the DfT to run the franchise (due to depressed revenues due to falling commuter numbers), even this hasn’t worked out quite as planned.

We’ve also got a laughable situation where it seems that a state-owned UK company cannot theoretically bid for a railway franchise, but at the same time we’ve got the commercial/international arms of mainland European state-owned rail operators who did, and now run UK rail franchises – Arriva (who also own Chiltern) are Deutsche Bahn, Abellio (behind Greater Anglia and Northern franchises) are Nederlandse Spoorwegen, and Keolis (who are part owners of Southern, SouthEastern, and TransPennine) are actually majority owned by SNCF. Does this consititute a net flow of taxpayer subsidy out of the UK?

This was recently highlighted in the Scottish Parliament – where you consider that ScotRail is 75% publically funded through subsidy – then why was this going to a commercial for-profit operator? Why could Holyrood not incorporate a Scottish state-owned non-profit company to run the service? Apparently, there’s some red tape in the 1993 Railways Act to deal with.

So, returning back to the WCML franchise: Branson is certain the First Group bid will result in an East Coast style bail-out. Now he’s competing in the sky, that may even give this a nudge. What if others follow Branson’s lead, dismiss railfranchising as “crazy”, and no-one wants to take on the poison chalice of the ECML?

If we assume for a moment that the new WCML franchise goes bump before the DfT can re-let ECML, does the Government end up running WCML and ECML?

Is that a foundation for re-nationalisation of train operations through the back door?