I have written here about the Cambridge guided busway and yesterday I finally got to travel on it. From the St Ives Park and Ride we boarded a bus and travelled quickly and comfortably towards Cambridge, the buses travelling in a concrete trough along the old railway line. This “innovative transport solution” can’t quite shake off the past as traces of the railway past remain, such as station buildings at Oakington and Histon, the latter boarded up, whilst there are several level crossings to negotiate. Just past the Science Park however the bus has to leave its trough for the busy streets of central Cambridge and take quite a time to reach the stop by Christ’s Pieces where we got off to begin our sightseeing.
The busway is certainly popular and the journey back was rather less comfortable as the double decker was so full. But would a regular rail service have been any less popular? Less frequent certainly but with the advantage of not having to leave the tracks for the streets and being available for freight, diverted trains etc as well. The busway has been criticized from another quarter too, that of those who argue that the railway could have been converted into a road and that a busway is an unsatisfactory fudge,
The buses continue on to the Park and Ride at Trumpington near the M11. As I wrote before reaching Trumpington has meant using part of the trackbed of the former railway to Bedford which is the missing link in the rapidly developing East West rail project.
An interesting and not unpleasant experience then but worth the money spent (not counting the additional money still to be spent rejoining Cambridge and Bedford by a roundabout route)? On that one the jury’s not out.
This is what the West of England main line at Dawlish looked like this week. Plymouth and Cornwall are now cut off from the national rail network and may be for a while to come. Before 1968 this would not have happened as there was another route from Exeter to Plymouth passing to the North of Dartmoor, through Okehampton and Tavistock. Indeed until 1958 there was another line between Exeter and Newton Abbott along the Teign Valley. I wrote about them here.
The point is that, even fifty or so years ago, there were concerns about rising sea levels at Dawlish and voices were heard warning about the dangers of closing and lifting alternative routes. They were ignored. But what is to be done now? Well, for a change long term thinking is needed. Reopening the Tavistock route may not be possible even though a significant portion of the trackbed remains intact and there has also been talk of reopening the Teign Valley line. There is also the possibility of raising the level of the line at Dawlish. None of these options is cheap. Network Rail comes onto the public sector balance sheet on September 1st which will certainly must mean reluctance from the government to increase its debt which already stands at £32 billion. Expect more make do and mend. And more disruption on the network.
The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin recently announced that a new franchise for the East Coast Main Line, (that’s the classic route of the Flying Scotsman from London to Edinburgh) would be awarded from 2016. The bidding race for this prestigious franchise has begun. What the Government is looking for is a franchisee that will invest in services, provide ‘innovative timetabling’ (whatever that means) and pay a load of dosh back to the Treasury (which most franschises to date haven’t).
The current franchisee has operated the route for four years. It has increased the frequency of services, introduced direct services between Lincoln and London, runs between Harrogate and London seven days a week, it has invested significantly and it expects to return a billion pounds to the Treasury over the first five years of the franchise. With such a track record (no pun intended) of success you might think that the franchisee would be a strong favourite to be awarded the new franchise. You would be wrong because it is not being allowed to bid. The reason for this is that the franchisee is the publicly owned Directly Operated Railways who stepped in in 2009 after the withdrawal of both GNER and National Express. Where the private sector failed they have succeeded and not for the first time. They ran South East Trains successfully after the abysmal failures of Connex. They are, therefore, an embarrassment to politicians trapped in the dogma that the private sector is always better than the public. And private sector operators hate them. Stagecoach have issued a rather intemperate statement saying that a competitive bidding process will generate much better returns than simply handing a franchise to a public sector operator. Maybe but that is no reason why a successful incumbent should not be allowed to bid and, besides, previous competitions did not realise great benefits for the public purse as wildly optimistic private sector bids led to operators pulling out of contractual obligations when they found they couldn’t afford them. These episodes raise a significant question about the whole concept of franchising and certainly about the folly of not allowing BR to remain in existence as a train operator at privatisation. .
Coming from Stagecoach, a specialist in monopolistic and anti-competitive practices and whose owners have amassed huge wealth from milking the taxpayer, talk of free markets and competition is frankly a bit rich (again no pun intended). They are but one example of the parasite capitalism that I will return to in a future post. It is the almost theological belief in the private sector that has helped this situation to come about. As we can see with the East Coast franchise ideology continues to hold sway over boring old facts.