THE East Coast mainline should be run by the Government ‘for an extended period’ before a decision is made on whether to return it to the private sector.
The suggestion has come from a rail passenger pressure group following claims by union leaders that the London to Glasgow route should be permanently nationalised.
Figures released today by the National Audit Office show that a failed attempt by transport company National Express to run the intercity route cost the taxpayer as much as £380m in lost revenues.
National Express won the right to operate the rail franchise in December 2007 when it pledged to generate more cash for the Government than any other bidder.
But only 23 months later, in November 2009, National Express was forced to admit defeat and hand the running of the route back to the Government.
National Express bosses blamed the unexpected downturn in the economy and fall in passenger numbers for its failure, but critics of privatisation said the franchise system encouraged rival companies to go head to head and make overly ambitious claims on profit.
Bruce Williamson, of rail pressure group Railfuture, is now calling for an extended period of Government ownership to enable detailed study.
He said: “I don’t consider the figure of a loss of £380m to be fair because the Government was never going to get that.
“National Express made overly ambitious claims when it was bidding, so the Government can’t say it has lost what it was realistically never going to get.”
When the Government took over the running of the route in November 2009 and re-branded the service as East Coast, it said it wanted to see it back in private hands by November 2011.
But Mr Williamson is now calling for an extended period of public ownership to allow a full study of the public versus private debate.
He said: “There is a lot of debate about the best way to run a railway. There is a lot of ideological arguments over whether the private sector increases efficiencies and performance which is good for the passengers or is more interested in satisfying the needs of shareholders.
“What anyone who uses the railways wants to see is a reliable, clean and well priced service. Perhaps the Government should continue to run the East Coast Mainline for an extended period.
“It is one of the major routes in the country, so it would be useful to compare it against other major routes and analyse performance, reliability and cost.
“There is no doubt that privatisation has led to increased bureaucracy.”
The NAO report said that since the Government took over the running in November 2009 there had been a dip in punctuality.
Around 60% of delays were down to Network Rail. The other 40% were the fault of East Coast and down to the management of stops at stations and train maintenance issues.
RMT union boss Bob Crow said: “This report proves the point that public ownership can deliver rail services as a clear-cut alternative to the chaos and exploitation of the private train operators.”