The confusion over franchising policy could not be better highlighted by the mixed messages coming from ministers. On the one hand we have quite explicit threats suggesting that the government could take back the First Capital Connect franchise because of months of dire performance on the Thameslink line – why did they ever change the name? – while on the other we have Lord Adonis suggesting that longer franchises are likely to be come the norm, with perhaps contracts stretching up to 22 years.
The FCC debacle seems to go on and on, partly because the difficulties stem from more than one source. First there was the fact that the roster can only be filled if the drivers work on their rest days, a hangover from BR days which should have been dealt with years ago. Then we had the poor weather which has knocked out a number of trains sets. However, by all accounts, these difficulties have been compounded by poor management and a lack of managerial nous.
This puts FirstGroup in the dock again following the terrible difficulties it got into over the Great Western franchise which the company has now sorted out at great expense. The FCC problem seems more fundamental and not one that could be solved simply by throwing money at it. However, the government is unlikely to remove a franchise from the country’s biggest operator – it is rather different than kicking National Express when it was already down for the count. So I doubt whether the government will have the guts to go for First, unless it is seen as a populist measure in the run-up to the election.
Meanwhile, with both Tories and Labour now committed to longer term franchises, doesn’t anone out there spot the contradictions?