Franchise muddle persists

The day after Lord Adonis suggested that franchises might be as long as 22 years, he threatened First Capital Connect with taking away its contract if the company did not improve services. This followed hot on the heels of the announcement that the temporarily renationalised East Coast would offer an improved service, with amongst other goodies, at least one train daily service between London and Edinburgh in four hours and a simplified ticketing system.

 All of this highlights Labour’s conflicting attitude towards franchising. On the one hand, there seems to be a recognition that the system does not work very well. Lord Adonis has been far readier than his predecessors to push companies running failing franchises into making improvements. He even stopped South West Trains from closing many of its ticket offices and he seems to have no problem with what his opponents call micromanagement – which he rightly calls ensuring that passengers get a good service and taxpayers value for money.

 On the other hand, by making ten year franchises standard with the possibility of up to 22 years if there is the promise of investment, he seems to be entrenching the system that has attracted so much of his criticism. Such a long term arrangement would be very difficult to police and, moreover, calculating what premium or subsidy was needed would be pretty much a matter of guesswork, though the idea of linking payments to the overall performance of the economy is a good one.

 There is a lack of logic here. Lord Adonis has been relishing the fact that he has his very own franchise to play with and, rightly, is using it as an example to the rest of the industry, with, for example, guarantees of improved catering and even the restoration of the Flying Scotsman brand. So rather than handing over sections of the railway for almost a generation, with little control, why does he not keep more of himself?