Virgin Trains East Coast, the consortium that runs the line from London to Edinburgh and which is 90% owned by Stagecoach has had its franchise taken away.
The line is now temporarily in public ownership, renamed the London North East Railway.
This follows the consortium admitting that they had over-bid for the contract — offering £3.3 billion in order to land the contract, when they had no intention of paying this amount, or as they put it, they “discovered” they were unable to pay the amount.
The Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had previously discussed ending the contract early and allowing a new franchise to take over. But the collapse of the contract has meant the government has been forced to renationalise. The government intends to offer the franchise out to tender in 2020 and has already given Virgin Trains an extension on the West Coast franchise. The Tories may have accepted this particular private-market failure. They are determined to keep the rail network in private hands.
There are now 17 Train Operating Company franchises operating on the British rail network, and all of them failing in some way. Failing on the basis of private ownership, i.e. not making the expected profits for their shareholders. Or failing passengers through delays, cancellations and overcrowded trains. Or failing rail workers by pushing forward with Driver Only Operation (DOO) and attacking pay, terms and conditions.
On Monday 21 May Arriva and Govia introduced new timetables across their networks, revealing a lack of planning and staffing. There was severe disruption, with cancellations and widespread confusion.
Both companies have been at the forefront of trying to introduce DOO and have faced repeated strikes from the RMT union and previously Aslef, the drivers’ union, to stop its introduction.
Labour have committed to halting DOO, and that would be a step forward, though it should be remembered that guards have already been removed from large sections of the rail network.
The rail network is a vital and socially-useful infrastructure, but is run by privateers more interested in profits then running an efficient and well-run service. Nationalisation of the entire network is an increasingly popular demand, with polls showing around 75% of the public supporting it.
Every year on 2 January, the day on which rail fares increased, there is a campaign day supported by Aslef, TSSA and the RMT. But beyond this day there is very little public activity taking up the demand. The main activity in support of railworkers is done by groups like Disabled People Against Cuts, who have joined picket lines and taken part in direct-action against DOO.
Labour 2017 manifesto called for the renationalisation of the railways but only when each franchise expires. In the case of the Caledonian Sleeper service this would mean waiting till 2030!
The fight for renationalisation mist start now if we are to win it from a Labour government. Rail unions, passenger groups and other activists need to fight now for a wholly publicly-run railway system including maintenance, rolling stock, infrastructure and sales.
Beyond this we need a more radical demand for all the railway companies to be nationalised at the same time and as a whole, and put under rail workers’ control.
A renationalised railway should include representation for passengers and activist groups who support a more efficient, well-staffed and accessible rail network.