Denise Robertson: Why take a journey into the unknown with our railways?

A French company has won a 7-year contract to run London’s Docklands Light Railway. Denise Robertson gives her opinion

Rail union bosses say not enough assurances have been given by the Government over services from Morpeth
A rail passenger waiting at a station

I’m doing twice as much TV work as before. This means twice as much time on East Coast trains, three times to London and back in the last week alone.

With each journey I’ve become more convinced that putting this line out to tender is crazy. It’s running perfectly, making money for the Exchequer and it’s ethos is ‘customer first’.

In the last few years we’ve seen the franchise taken over by two different companies. Both failed, with attendant disruption.

Is history going to repeat itself? Or will a foreign company step in and ship any profit abroad?

Last week, Transport for London awarded a seven-year contract to run London’s Docklands Light Railway to a consortium headed by Keolis, part-owned by France’s state railway.

Keolis is reportedly involved in other areas of train travel in Britain.

I’m told that East Coast’s present management is barred from bidding to run the service. If this is true it’s madness. Why should foreign state-owned rail companies be able to bid for British franchises while a team successfully running a British railway cannot? I know the northern MPs have made their views felt.

Is it time for a petition to show the Chancellor how much support there is for letting well alone?

:: Reportedly one of the biggest loan companies made four million loans last year to one million people.

That means one loan doesn’t solve a problem, you have to get in deeper and deeper. Nice for the loan company, misery for the borrower.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has accused them of pushing vulnerable borrowers into a “crippling spiral of debt” and promised to “compete” them out of business by using the Church of England to expand community-run credit unions.

They specialise in providing loans and savings products to poorer people, and are an alternative to banks, payday lenders and loan sharks. The cost of borrowing is capped at 3% a month and there are no strongarm methods of debt recovery.

One payday loan company says the average loan taken out by its customers is £180 for 17 days, which costs £37 in interest and fees. By comparison a community institution would typically charge £5 in interest and fees on the same loan over the same period of time.

Last week, on Radio Four, a West Indian was recounting how, when they came to Britain in the 50s, they were unable to get loans. Undeterred, they set up their own credit union. It was difficult at first but eventually it worked.

But to lend money, credit unions must first raise funds. I have long lobbied governments to subsidise credit unions nationwide. Now I have written to the Archbishop suggesting people might be willing to put up a bond to fund expansion of well-intentioned schemes, to be repayable if the scheme became solvent and written off as a gesture of goodwill if not.

:: Delve into the history of many great families and you’ll find their rise to fortune began when they discovered coal under their land.

The axing of Britain’s coal industry seemed to signal an end to mining. Thirty years after the collapse of the miners’ strike, the country will soon have only one deep coal mine and six surface mines.

Now we may be seeing the emergence of a new generation of coal owners. Former coal miners are putting their savings into exploring a new pit which they hope will revive five villages in West Yorkshire.

They are sure there will be a market for their coal, perhaps from Kirklees light railway.

The reserves are estimated at almost 5 million tons and the co-operative behind the pit expects to extract up to 6,000 tons a week with a workforce of 50.

Their spokesman, Bill Birch, 64, a former mining engineer, says “Mining is in their blood. The community see it as their heritage; they don’t regard it as a dirty horrible industry.”

The arbitrary closing of the pits left many communities without work and almost without hope. I have watched and admired the efforts some of them have made to reinvigorate their area.

On paper this new project looks a frightening task, but so must those early attempts to extract riches from the earth and look at the mighty industry they became.

I wish it all the luck in the world.

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