Unions slam ‘industrial vandalism’ of reprivatising successful franchise
BILLIONAIRE transport tycoons Richard Branson and Brian Souter will seize control of the East Coast Main Line next year, it was revealed yesterday.
Last night unions slammed Con-Dem ministers for the “industrial vandalism” of railroading through the East Coast privatisation ahead of next year’s general election. The government shortened the bidding timetable from the usual two years to just 18 months.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin gleefully claimed that the joint Virgin-Stagecoach bid was “a fantastic deal for passengers and for staff.”
The decision means Mr Branson and SNP bankroller Mr Souter will have a London-Scotland train monopoly — they already run the Euston to Glasgow West Coast line.
The decision came as a shock — insiders had predicted the contract would go to the joint bid of French state-owned Keolis and Eurostar. Unions and passengers voiced huge discontent when it emerged that a transfer to this venture would be swiftly followed by the privatisation of Britain’s stake in the Channel Tunnel operator.
A Department for Transport spokesman insisted the decision would have been taken some time ago — and not in the face of the public backlash.
The spokesman said the Transport Secretary would not have been aware of the identity of the bidder recommended by civil servants when making the decision.
But a senior transport union source poured scorn on this suggestion, saying it was part of a “smoke and mirrors exercise” to cover up what was a “bit of a sop to Branson to make up for the West Coast debacle.”
In August 2012 the West Coast franchise was awarded to arch-competitors FirstGroup — but the government dramatically reversed the decision after a Virgin PR campaign, admitting significant technical flaws in the franchising process.
Mr McLoughlin yesterday promised shiny new Intercity Express Project trains, new direct connections from London to Huddersfield, Middlesbrough, Dewsbury and Thornaby, 50 per cent more seats and a 14-minute reduction in London to Leeds journey times.
But his Labour opposite number Michael Dugher said the taxpayer had been “sold down the river” in the panic sale.
“It’s absurd that our own public operator is the only rail company in the world that has been barred from challenging to run its own services, on the ideological grounds that it is British and publicly owned,” he said.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “It is simply ludicrous to even contemplate reprivatisation when not only have there been two previous private-sector failures on the East Coast route but when the public-sector rescue operation has been such a stunning success.”
“This is pure industrial vandalism by a rotten government hell-bent on wrecking successful public services in the name of private greed.”
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes accused the government of “sheer political spite.”
He said: “This will simply mean more of the same, especially now that Virgin and Stagecoach will have a monopoly of long-distance rail travel in Britain.”
Drivers’ union Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said the decision was “hugely disappointing and shortsighted.”
East Coast has earned £1 billion for the taxpayer since it was renationalised in 2009 after two successive francisees walked away, complaining they couldn’t afford the premiums they had committed to pay.