Chris Grayling is MP for Epsom and Ewell, and Secretary of State for Transport.
I’m not sure many people were expecting my announcement today. I’ve watched with interest as everyone forecast that I would take the opposite decision to the one I took earlier this week – to end Virgin Trains East Coast’s contract and set the line onto a different path.
But the truth is that the decision I took is one that simply continues a strategy that I set out soon after becoming Transport Secretary in 2016. I have believed for years that the current way our railways run is going to have to change – and today’s announcement is a big step on that road.
Since privatisation the level of ridership on our trains has risen and risen – to a point where the network is carrying more people than it did in Victorian times, when there were twice as many railways in the UK. It’s now bursting at the seams, and struggling to cope with the pressures on it – and passengers are rightly getting frustrated.
It’s not actually a question of ownership. The lines into a busy terminus would be full regardless of who was in charge, and the smallest of problems can throw a timetable out of kilter for hours. That’s why people find their daily services can be so unpredictable. Government being in charge doesn’t solve this problem.
But I came to the conclusion as I studied all the analyses of what has gone wrong on the East Coast Mainline, and of the best options going forward, that temporary Government control is a simpler path to what I believe will be the long term solution to the problem.
We need an integrated railway again, one where track and train are operated together, and where there are fewer organisations and fewer complex contracting structures. Privatisation in the 1990s may have started a period of revival, but its current structure is a barrier to the level of change that we will need to sort things out properly.
The problem on the East Coast Mainline today is actually not one about the train service itself. It has actually done pretty well recently, making a healthy profit for the taxpayer, and with a passenger approval rating of 92 per cent. But its parent company Stagecoach made a financial promise to the taxpayer that it has not been able to keep – and there has to be a consequence for that.
The result has been a massive loss for them, equivalent to the loss of one fifth of the entire value of what is a diverse and international transport business. It’s right to send a message that even a Government that champions free enterprise will not accept a situation where promises from business are not kept. Stagecoach has suffered a massive reputational and financial cost as a result.
But today’s announcement also sets a path to the future. The team that I established last autumn have been preparing for months and will be running the trains from the 24th June. I am confident that they will do a good job for passengers.
But they will also start the process now of working with Network Rail to form Britain’s first integrated regional rail organisation – the kind of joined up structure that will be able to deliver better for passengers.
The recreation of the LNER, one of Britain’s iconic rail brands, will be more than just another train operation. It will be a return to the joined-up structure of the past, where the train drivers, the engineers, the signallers, the guards and the planners all worked as one single team. When the process is completed, it will become a genuine and fresh partnership between public and private sectors, of the kind that delivers, in my view, best for the travelling public.
Today’s decision will make it easier for us to make that transition.
We are going to need a fresh approach to franchising more generally – making sure that the problems on the East Coast route do not happen again. We have already made changes: we no longer automatically take the highest bids, and there is a greater focus on service quality and not money. But we have much more to do.
But there is one thing I am sure of. Those who want nationalisation should just look across the channel to France, where services are falling apart and strikes are disrupting the network for month after month. The French prime minister said France’s heavily indebted French railways are bad for passengers and taxpayers: “Whether or not they take the train, the French are paying more and more for a public service that works less and less well.”
That’s what Jeremy Corbyn wants for Britain. It didn’t work in the past. It won’t work now.
But I believe that taking time out to get something new in place is the best way forward for Britain’s railways and the people who travel on them.