It will not go unnoticed by observers of the rail industry that the franchise to run the UK’s busiest rail line has recently been re-awarded. The line (or network really) in question is the West Coast Mainline, and the bidders are the incumbent Virgin Trains, and the UK’s largest Rail operator, First Group.
When the beans were counted, First Group won out. As one commentator said, if Virgin had to lose it, then its a shame it’s First, not Stagecoach! The irony being that Stagecoach are minority shareholders of, and the transport brains behind Virgin.
The news was met with a sense of foreboding by the passengers and staff at VT’s main destinations. One member of the public, Ross McKillop, decided to take his concerns a little further, by pitching an online e-petition urging the government to reconsider the decision.
The petition was picked up quickly by the mainstream press and Sir Richard Branson. Quickly social media catapulted the number of “signs” to over the 100,000 mark required by the government to even consider the petition. At the time of writing, it had added 40,000 in the past 24 hours, and was about to exceed 120,000. It is reasonable to expect that the quarter million mark is a distinct possibility before the closure of the petition.
So why the outpouring of support for Virgin, who, when all said and done have faced their fair share of criticism for high fares, overcrowding, spells of unreliability and almost impenetrable airline style fares. Well I can only say why I “signed”.
The issue, as I see it goes deeper than just the WCML. It goes to the heart of rail franchising as a whole.
Virgin has its flaws, but First Group are criticised in most passenger satisfaction surveys as failing on many of the basics, such as onboard service and train cleanliness. Issues which point to under-staffing.These issues were eradicated from the WCML by Virgin 10 years ago, and whilst valuable to passengers, don’t come cheap.
The franchising process, it seems lacks transparency, and it is difficult to see how the key stakeholders (i.e. the passengers) have any input whatsoever. The bidding is effectively an auction between the DTP and the bidders. I think it is fair to assume that franchise renegotiations haven’t really grabbed the public attention except where they went wrong. The East Coast mainline has twice been handed back by franchisees who outbid Virgin, only to realise their bid was wrong. This is bound to cause confusion amongst passengers. It can of course work the other way. East Midlands Trains (Stagecoach) and CrossCountry (Arriva) have well out-performed their predecessor on the routes, Central Trains (National Express). National Express’ removal in Scotland by First Group was also generally welcomed by passengers.
Some observers, including Virgin themselves feel that First’s bid is not sustainable, but ease of walking away may simply result in them handing the franchise back again (they require 7% growth per annum to meet their financial requirements) and the bid which promises to reduce fares, increase services and return more to the treasury can only lead to aggressive cost cutting.
It is unlikely that this particular petition will change the WCML decision. What it does do is sends out a message to government that Franchising needs to include our needs, and our voice must to be heard. An eBay approach is not an appropriate approach to decisions of national importance.
Full Disclosure: I have no personal, professional or Financial interest in any Transport Company except as a fare paying passenger.