TRANSPORT: Train franchise changes are like mating elephants

A Dutch Koploper train. There cannot be many places in the Netherlands where it is possible to photograph a train on an embankment..
A Dutch Koploper train. There cannot be many places in the Netherlands where it is possible to photograph a train on an embankment..

About every 10 years or so, rail franchises change hands. This is so that the Government can claim that the rail industry is competitive.

For passengers, there is very little opportunity to choose between operators, the choice between East Coast and Cross Country over the section between Edinburgh and York being one of the very few examples.

About two years before each franchise is due to expire, the process of change begins.

It is like the mating of elephants – everything happens at a very high level, there is a lot of smoke and dust and then nothing is heard for two years while the selection process develops unseen.

Shortly before the actual change occurs the announcement is made that the new operator has been chosen.

There is usually more excitement about the change of the inter-city franchises such as East and West Coast than about the local operators such as Northern Rail and Scotrail.

Scotrail, having been operated by the Aberdeen-based First Group for the last decade, is to be taken over by the Dutch in the spring of 2015.

On October 8, Keith Brown, the Scottish Government Transport Minister, announced that the new Scotrail franchisee from April 2015 will be Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch National Railways), which trades in Britain as Abellio.

When Abellio won Northern 10 years ago, it was expected that there would be no growth on local services in the north of England, but the Dutch have proved them wrong.

They had to hire in trains while lengthening some of their own and still suffer some overcrowding. This will be addressed in their bid for the new franchise to start in 2016.

If Abellio wins the new Northern franchise in 2016, for which it is short-listed, almost all the local trains in Northern England and Scotland will be run by a nationalised rail operator – it will just happen to be Dutch rather than British. It will also be a good time to put the pressure on for better services at north Northumberland stations.

Experience on a visit to the Netherlands revealed that NS is a very well-organised railway.

The main east-west line from Amsterdam to Enschede shuts down for two or three hours at night, but otherwise runs every half-hour, connecting with all the various north-south services reliably at the junction stations. Bus services run throughout the towns to and from all the main stations frequently. At the time of our visit at a flat fare of one euro (about 80p).On Saturdays the flat fare was valid for a return journey.

NS has an ownership stake in the bus companies, so it is not simply dependant on separate companies making their own commercial decisions about whether or when to serve railway stations.

Abellio is to relocate its UK headquarters to Glasgow, increasing the staffing level in Scotrail’s offices by 50.

It has undertaken that there shall be no compulsory redundancies for Scotrail staff during the term of its franchise, and it will pay at least the living wage. Railway unions will be represented on the board of the company.

It will introduce Inter-city trains on the Glasgow and Edinburgh to Aberdeen and Inverness services, with an advance fare of £5 between any two Scottish cities, and will improve the ‘onward journey’ from its stations, especially for bus users and cyclists.

It will introduce trains for The Scottish Experience on tourist routes, including the Borders Railway to Galashiels, which is due to open next September, and will run later trains for people returning home from concerts and events in the cities.

The identity of the East Coast franchisee from February 2015 is expected to be announced shortly. It is a choice between one of our two Scottish firms, First and Stagecoach, and French National Railways.

Financial analysts say that, having lost Scotrail, if First does not succeed in gaining East Coast, it will suffer ‘cash outflows’.