It is a fact that train companies fight hard to stop any real competition on their monopoly routes at the expense of customer choice.
That GNER has launched a legal challenge against the decision to allow a rival operator to start services on ”its” East Coast Main Line is no surprise. Sure the company says it welcomes competition (really!), but wants the same terms as its new rival Grand Central.
GC is poised to start service from the north-east to London this winter after winning approval from the Office of Rail Regulation. Thisoperation, along with the Hull Trains service from Humberside, will give real competition on one of the key business travel stretches of
track in the UK.
But GNER wants a judicial review against the ORR decision, citing unfair competition as GC allegedly pays reduced track charges. A judge will hear the case in July, and let”s hope commonsense prevails. Part of GNER”s case is questioning why GC needs to stop at York, a major interchange already served by 61 trains a day. No prizes for guessing whose trains those are.
GNER has enjoyed a clear run up and down the East Coast Main Line from London for ten years. Surely, if rail operators want to regain public trust and sympathy, competition must be widened in the rail network. Almost all major train companies enjoy a virtual monopoly on the long-distance routes, with the result that fares are exorbitant, restrictions rife and choice non-existent.
Take First Great Western. It has a monopoly on long-distance routes out of London Paddington to Wales and the West Country. And the same applies to South West Trains out of London Waterloo.
Virgin enjoys a similar monopoly on its cross-country routes, while around London the network is generally run by one operator.
There is some cross over for part of the journey, but for long haul train travel in the UK, the choice is usually one rail company and its prices.
MPs have reignited the debate over the privatised rail companies and their drive for profits at the expense of consumer choice, cheap fares and transparency. It is good to have that discussion. The transport committee said tickets were unnecessarily complicated, walk-on fares were too high and rail companies were ”not giving value for money”. Hard to argue with that. Bearing in mind the private rail companies receive taxpayers” cash in huge subsidies, MPs are right to question their ”profit before service” approach.
Rail companies will argue they do offer cheap fares, but only if you book way in advance and travel on a Tuesday lunchtime. And even then the goalposts are moved at peak holiday times or the cheap tickets are simply taken off sale. They hold commuters and passengers to ransom if they must travel at short notice or at convenient times.
Train companies should learn from the airlines, which incidentally regularly offer cheaper fares than the railway on the same UK routes. It really is something when it is cheaper to fly than get the train.
BA once had a virtual monopoly from this country and complained bitterly when the likes of Virgin Atlantic, Ryanair or easyJet came in and offered better deals or simply choice.
But now look at BA, it is profitable and doing much better than most of its European or global rivals. Competition has done our one-time flag carrier some good and it should help the rail operators become more efficient too.
Until the rail industry really does embrace competition on long-distance routes, consumers will be hit with huge fares and no choice. Although it had to struggle at first Virgin Trains has got better and better in terms of fares and what it offers. It is in
competition with the airlines!
How long will the Association of Train Operating Companies have to keep wheeling out director general George Muir to defend fare rises and lackof competition?