The government, by awarding the West Coast rail franchise to FirstGroup (Why do companies think it is clever to omit the space between words in their name?) is yet again putting short-term gain before the long-term stability of the service. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Rail lost in its bid for a renewal after running the service for fifteen years.
Branson expressed “extreme disappointment” with the decision. He admitted that Virgin had been outbid when it had been in the running for three other franchises. He said “On the past three occasions, the winning operator has come nowhere close to delivering their promised plans and revenue, and has let the public and country down dramatically. GNER and National Express over-promised in order to win the franchise and spectacularly ran into financial difficulties in trying to deliver their plans. The East Coast is still in Government ownership and its service is outdated and under-invested, costing passengers and the country dearly as a result. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When will the Department for Transport learn?”
Surprisingly it is extremely difficult to find statistics on train operating companies and their individual market share. On a simple exercise of counting the number of franchises and the number of train operating companies in the market, it seems that FirstGroup has slightly short of one third of the franchises available. Whilst bids should be processed in an open and transparent process and no company should be prevented from making a bid, it seems to be common sense that neither should any company dominate the market of train operating companies.
Branson’s observation about franchises failing is less prophetic and more realistic. Several train operating companies have failed financially and others have either handed back the franchise or had it removed from them because of poor performance. However the most interesting detail is the survey undertaken by passenger focus:
PASSENGER SATISFACTION: Virgin: 91 per cent satisfied. FirstGroup: 85 per cent satisfied
PUNCTUALITY: Virgin: 89 per cent satisfied. FirstGroup: 83 per cent satisfied
VALUE FOR MONEY: Virgin: 59 per cent satisfied. FirstGroup: 49 per cent satisfied
DEALING WITH DELAYS: Virgin: 54 per cent satisfied. FirstGroup: 42 per cent satisfied
ROOM TO SIT AND STAND: Virgin: 80 per cent satisfied. FirstGroup: 70 per cent satsfied
Data from June’s passenger survey report via Passenger Focus