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A nonsensical decision

First Great Western franchise renewal

The extension of First Great Western’s franchise to run the London-Bristol-Swansea railway line won’t have passengers cheering in the aisles on the 19.15 from London Paddington tonight.

If past form is anything to go by, many of them will be standing all the way to Reading if it’s a good night - and all the way to Swindon if it’s not.

For years First Great Western has been rated among the worst of Britain’s long-distance train operating companies by travellers.

Surveys by Which? and other consumer-oriented bodies consistently show that around half of FGW passengers are dissatisfied with overcrowding, high fares and erratic punctuality.

Most privatised rail companies at least manage to scrape an approval rating of 60 per cent or so.

Almost one in three FGW passengers report having to stand during a recent journey.

This is known to be a particular problem - creating dangers for passengers and staff alike - in the first few trains from London after the end of the late afternoon and early evening peak fares period.

Yet FGW stubbornly refuses to run extra carriages to meet the demand, preferring to hold travellers to ransom.

As fares and revenues rise, the quality of the service sinks.

So why has the government rewarded this debt-ridden, failing enterprise with an extension rather than putting its InterCity franchise out to tender on schedule?

The suspicion must be that there would have been few bidders among the other train operating companies, despite the generous state subsidies which keep them afloat.

FGW itself is not averse to holding governments to ransom either, as well as its much vaunted “customers.”

In May 2011 the company announced that it would not be opting to extend its Greater Western franchise, thereby avoiding a payment of £827 million into public coffers.

The subsequent bidding process was scrapped, so FGW could continue in charge until now when, hey presto, its franchise is extended for the second time without any competition.

More embarrassing still, in order to maintain the franchise in private hands with FGW, the Department for Transport would have been compelled to rule out any bids from within the public sector.

This is despite the enormous success of Directly Operated Railways, which stepped in to manage the East Coast mainline service in November 2009 after National Express threw in the keys.

It has since turned in some of the lowest fare increases and highest customer satisfaction rates of all the rail companies, while also bringing in a surplus of £600m for the Exchequer to boot.

Its reward? The East Coast mainline will be auctioned off to the private sector which has twice walked away from it, with Directly Operated Railways forbidden to take part.

There will be no extension for one of Britain’s most successful railway enterprise because it doesn’t use public money to produce a profit for private shareholders.

The racket that is now Britain’s railway system underlines the urgent need for the Labour leadership to commit the next Labour government to take the service back into public ownership.

It makes strategic and financial sense. And every public opinion poll shows that such a pledge would be a big hit with the voters - including those on the 19.15 from London Paddington this evening.


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