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MP Calls for East Coast Headquarters to Stay in York

east coast train

5:40pm 21st June 2013

Hugh Bayley MP joined campaigners at York Railway Station to hand out leaflets which call for the publicly owned company, East Coast, to retain the franchise for the east coast main line.  Hugh Bayley has been calling for the government to allow services on York’s East Coast main line to continue to be provided by East Coast to test out whether public or private train operators provide better value for money and better services for the public. The government has agreed to re-franchise the West Coast line from London to Manchester and Glasgow and Hugh Bayley wants the government to allow services on York’s East Coast main line to continue to be provided by the public sector company, East Coast, for the same period as a private franchise, say 10-15 years, to test out whether public or private train operators provide better value for money and better services for the public

Hugh Bayley also pressed the government to keep the Headquarters of the east coast train operator in York.  He pointed out that the Labour Transport Minister Sadiq Khan,  promised the Headquarters would stay in York the last time the train operator changed, but the Conservative Minister, Simon Burns, refused to give this commitment.  The headquarters currently provide 200 jobs, but they act as an anchor for thousands of other jobs in York with railway engineering companies, suppliers and Network Rail.

The MP also called on the government to consult to see whether they want East Coast to be replaced by a private contractor.  He proposed that the Department for Transport should commission an independent body to conduct a passenger survey but the Minister rejected his proposal.  In reply to Mr Bayley, the Minister Simon Burns said:

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): I, too, begin by

As usual, I listened with considerable care and interest to the extremely thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), who raised a number of issues. First, he asked whether the headquarters would be in York. I understand why he did so: the issue is important to him, because York is his constituency. Obviously we would not expect to specify the location of the headquarters in any future franchise proposals, but there is nothing to prevent the new franchise company from choosing to locate its headquarters in York, especially given the current precedent.

The hon. Gentleman sought to tempt me down another route, asking for an independent commission to be set up to establish whether passengers wanted services to be taken away from Directly Operated Railways. I am afraid that I must disappoint him. I will not be tempted on to the wayside. We have no plans to set up any such commission, although perhaps I can give him some consolation. We are working with the independent body Passenger Focus to ensure that we understand what passengers, on the basis of their own experiences, want from their rail service, and that will influence any proposals that emerge from the franchise process.

Mr Bayley raised these issues in a debate in the House of Commons yesterday and his speech is shown below:

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Let me start by saying something that I think everybody in the Chamber will agree with. The east coast main line is an absolutely vital economic artery, pumping the lifeblood of our economy—jobs, investment and growth—through all the regions and cities that it serves from London to Edinburgh. That is why this debate is so important. It is not a technical or ideological debate about how the service should be run; it is a debate about how the railways can assist economic recovery in our regions. That is the question we need to debate today.

We had a similar debate in Westminster Hall two weeks ago, in which many hon. Members spoke. I have some sympathy for the Minister: he was left with absolutely no time to respond to the many questions that were asked. However, we have more time today. To recap briefly, I would like to pose two questions that I posed a fortnight ago to which the Minister was unable to respond.

First, if the Government go ahead with refranchising, will the headquarters of the new service be based in York? The headquarters currently provide over 200 jobs, but they act as a sheet anchor for thousands of other jobs with railway engineering companies, suppliers and for Network Rail’s operation of the east coast main line, which employs more people than the train operating company. The Government are legally able to make that a condition of the franchise and there is a precedent. When the train operating company last changed hands, I asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the then Minister, whether he would give a commitment to ensure stability by keeping the headquarters in York. He said:

“The headquarters to which my hon. Friend referred are in York. I can reassure him that when the holding company”— that is, East Coast— “takes over the running of the contract later on this year, the headquarters will stay in York.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 431.]

For the sake of stability for the business now at a time of economic fragility, will the current Minister make a similar commitment?

Secondly, I asked the Minister whether the Government will do what they say they will do and consult users of the service about what they want. It was reported in Modern Railways in May that the Department for Transport would take into account passengers’ views in relation to the train operating companies. Will the Department therefore commission an independent body to conduct a survey to see whether passengers want the service to be taken away from East Coast? A number of Members on both sides of the House have talked about the performance of East Coast, praising the company. We know that it has returned more money to the Government in premium payments—more than £540 million so far—than any other franchise holder on the line. We also know that it is more efficient than its predecessor and is providing value for money for the Government and the taxpayer.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) is a fair-minded man. He and I should sit down together and look at the statistics. However, to quote Alan Whitehouse, a former BBC transport correspondent, on the official measure of punctuality—the percentage of trains that reach their destination less than 10 minutes late over the period of a year—the east coast main line under East Coast’s management did better than the west coast main line under Virgin’s management. If we compare the two in terms of trains that actually arrive on time—that is to say, less than 60 seconds late—East Coast scores 61% for punctuality, whereas Virgin on the west coast main line scores 49%.

Mr Stewart Jackson: I had no wish to cast aspersions on the current operators, but the hon. Gentleman knows that Passenger Focus, for instance, said in response to the Brown review of franchising last year that the determinants of punctuality were too loose and should be tightened up anyway. However, I concede that there are extraneous circumstances under the auspices of Network Rail that affect performance—such as the gentleman on a bridge at Walton in Peterborough last night who detained me by half an hour.

Hugh Bayley: It is useful that the hon. Gentleman says that we should listen to Passenger Focus, because it currently gives the East Coast service the highest level of satisfaction that it has received since Passenger Focus starting doing its surveys in 1999.

Ian Mearns: The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) has just highlighted one of the problems that franchise holders like East Coast face. They are reliant on Network Rail and on the infrastructure if their trains are to run on time. Extraneous issues—including, unfortunately, people trying to commit suicide—are completely beyond their control. Having said that, they do very well in spite of all that.

Hugh Bayley: My hon. Friend makes a good point.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab) rose—

Hugh Bayley: Our speeches are time limited and we get no injury time for interventions, so I must make some progress.

The good performance that East Coast has achieved is all the more surprising because it has not been given the security of tenure of a 10 to 15-year franchise that the comparator company on the west coast has. In fact, East Coast has not really known from one month to the next where it stands or whether it will continue to run the service or not. Last year, the Department for Transport asked the chief executive of East Coast, Karen Boswell, to prepare a five-year plan for the future of her company. She submitted that plan in January this year. In March, an interview with Karen Boswell by Roger Ford was published in Modern Railways, in which she set out her plans, and there was no hint of privatisation at that point. So what has changed?

Franchising is not a low-cost option. The National Audit Office report on the east coast National Express failure estimated that that had cost the Department for Transport between £330 million and £380 million. The Department had expected to receive that money from the franchisee up to 2012 but had not done so. The funds then had to be recovered from other Department for Transport budgets. The aborted west coast main line franchising exercise cost the taxpayer £55 million. Alan Whitehouse, the former BBC transport correspondent, estimates that each one of those bidding for a major franchise such as these spends between £10 million and £13 million in pursuit of its bid. Those costs ultimately come back to the passengers in the form of higher fares.

Two weeks ago, in the debate in Westminster Hall, I argued that East Coast should continue to run the service, not indefinitely but for the period of a full franchise, so that it could be an effective public sector comparator. We have seen today in The Northern Echo that Lord Adonis, who was Secretary of State in 2009 when East Coast was given the job of rescuing the service, shares that view. It is of course consistent with what he said in 2009, which was that the service should be run by a public sector contractor, East Coast, but not indefinitely. I am not arguing for an indefinite arrangement; I am asking for a period equivalent to a private franchise so that we can compare like with like. That is still my view.

I have been thinking about the matter further, however, and I put it to the Minister that we already have a public sector comparator. By the end of this financial year, East Coast will have run the service for four years, returned about £800 million to the Treasury and provided an improved service. If the Government are hellbent on refranchising, will they commission an independent body—perhaps the National Audit Office—to analyse the bids that they receive and compare them with East Coast’s performance? If none of the bidders that responds to the Minister’s tendering exercise can produce a robust case to show that it can deliver a better and safer service with lower fares and a bigger financial return to the Government than East Coast is currently providing, he should keep the service with East Coast.

The Government seem to be hellbent on refranchising, but we know that refranchising against a short timetable is unwise, to say the least. The Laidlaw inquiry, which looked into the fiasco of the collapsed west coast main line franchising process, came up with this recommendation:

“I recommend that the Department for Transport ensures that a credible timeline, with reference to the complexity of the procurement involved, is assessed and agreed at the inception”,

and he argued that this timeline should provide time for contingencies, and for comprehensive quality and commercial reviews. The Brown report, a rather wider one on the franchising system, which was also commissioned following the west coast collapse, proposed a detailed 24-month timeline for running a franchising process.

Let us look at what happened with the west coast franchising process—the rushed, bungled and failed west coast franchising process. The invitation to tender was put out in May 2011. The franchise was awarded to FirstGroup in August 2012—15 months later—with a view to starting the service in December 2012, 19 months later. Both Laidlaw and Brown said it was too short a timetable.

What, then, are the Government proposing for the east coast main line franchise? They intend to put a notice in the Official Journal of the European Union, which I take as a starting point, in October this year, with an invitation to tender in February 2014 and with the contract being awarded in October 2014—not in 15, 19 or 24 months, as proposed in the Brown review, but in just 12 months. The franchise is intended to start in February 2015, conveniently timed just before the next general election, which would be 16 months after the process started, as opposed to the 19 months from invitation to tender through to the intended start on the west coast franchise.

The Government are proposing to do this east coast franchise not only in a more rushed and hurried way than was done with the west coast franchise—the failed west coast franchise—but in a substantially shorter period than was proposed by each of the two reports they set up to investigate why the west coast franchising process had failed. When will the Minister’s party ever learn? This looks like a fire sale, rushed through before the 2015 general election.

I served on the Bill Committee that scrutinised what is now the Railways Act 1993—the legislation that introduced the privatisation of our railways. I have seen it all before. In Committee, the Government of the day said that they would franchise rail services to train operating companies, but that they had no intention of privatising the railway infrastructure of track and signalling. Then, after the Bill went through, the Government changed their mind and decided to rush through—steamroller through—the privatisation of the rail track by creating a body called Railtrack. We know that this body spectacularly and comprehensively failed. When it collapsed, the Labour Government had to put together a public sector rescue at considerable expense to the taxpayer. They created Network Rail—and we still have it as a not-for-profit company owned by guarantee, which does not have directors and does not pay dividends. We have a public sector body.

Alan Whitehouse had this to say in the Yorkshire Post just over a week ago:

“Until just a few weeks ago, East Coast was to remain in the public sector for as far ahead as anyone could see. Suddenly, it is up for grabs. Can it be a mere coincidence that the Transport Secretary…announces a re-franchising plan that would see East Coast trains returned to the private sector by the time of the next election? Or a piece of blatant electioneering? It all smacks of a similar desperation to that of the Major government’s ‘scorched earth’ policy of making rail privatisation a fait accompli before an election that he knew he would lose.”

The Minister does not have to take it from me. He does not even have to take it from a well-respected transport correspondent like Mr Whitehouse. He need only look at the history—his own party’s history—of what a rushed privatisation on the railways led to last time his party was incumbent at the time of an election. I say to him, “Slow down, even if you believe that reprivatisation is the right thing to do. Do not make the same mistakes that you made with the west coast main line. Take your time. I have no doubt that if you win the next general election you will go ahead with it, but if you do it as a fire sale, it will be a disaster not just for the railway, but for the economies of our regions that are served by it.”

Hugh Bayley MP comments:

“I will keep pressing for the Headquarters jobs to stay in York.  It would be disasterous for the local economy if they were to move, and there is no reason for the government to create uncertainty.

They could simply agree to keep them in York, like Labour did last time the train operating company changed .  

East Coast is a great publicly owned company which have done well.  They have paid £640 million to the government over the three and bit years they have run the service. 

That’s more per year than their two private sector predecessors, and the Passenger Focus surveys now give the service a higher rating than ever before, under public or private ownership.

“The Government needs to consult rail passengers about the future of the service.  They are the people who use it.”

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