RAIL unions in the North East have condemned the Government’s plan to reprivatise the East Coast Main Line in 2012.
The service between London, Newcastle and Edinburgh carries 18 million passengers a year and has been in the hands of the Department of Transport since 2009 when it took the franchise from struggling National Express.
Now it has emerged that ministers want the profitable inter city operation to be “re-let” in a few months.
Michael Thompson, national executive member for the Rail Maritime and Transport Union in the North, said: “This is bad news for rail workers, the economy of the North East of England and for all rail passengers.
“Instead of slashing services, cutting and exporting jobs abroad, the Government should make it clear that East Coast must remain publicly owned and publicly accountable after the failure of numerous privateer franchises.”
He said that the “axing of a quality train experience” and the loss of customer service jobs was all in preparation for handing over the train operator to the “lowest bidder”.
East Coast trains generated revenue of £234m in the nine months to March 2010, but the proportion of its trains arriving on time was below the national average of 93%. Satisfaction with the train operator dropped seven points to 83% year on year in a survey taken last autumn by the consumer group Passenger Focus.
Despite union claims, East Coast denied that morale among staff had suffered because of the uncertainty. A company spokesman said: “We relaunched the business in May with a new timetable and created 85 new jobs and 117 extra services a week.”
There is frustration that the Government has ignored arguments to keep the service in the public sector. Unions fear the new operator will want to slash jobs in the interest of boosting profits for shareholders.
A campaign has been mounted to stop the closure of a rail call centre in Newcastle next month, and East Coast passengers will be lobbied at Central Station this Friday. In a statement the Department of Transport said: “The Government is clear that we intend to relet East Coast Main Line franchise in 2012.”
Observers believe the date could slip by a few months. It all depends on when ministers press the button to allow the changes to take place.
The drivers union ASLEF remains sceptical. It called the Government’s thinking “muddled”, adding: “They don’t have a clue about how long they want the franchises to be.”