Call to scrap rail franchise

Dominic Chessum The government should give “serious consideration” to scrapping National Express' franchise to run trains in East Anglia Norfolk, MPs said today.

Dominic Chessum

The government should give "serious consideration" to scrapping National Express' franchise to run trains in East Anglia Norfolk, MPs said yesterday.

And last night North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb went further and echoed calls made earlier this month by union leader Bob Crow for the rail operator's franchise to be removed immediately.

The move comes after the National Express's East Coast franchise - the mainline service that runs between London and Edinburgh, via Peterborough - was terminated at midnight on Friday because of failures to meet its obligation to pay �1.4bn to government over the course of the contract.

The East Coast line is now being operated by the government ahead of its being put up for auction next year.

The timing of the switch means that National Express's right to operate trains in East Anglia will no longer be automatically extended to 2014 when it comes to an end in 2011, because for this to happen the company needed to been running the East Coast franchise at a specified cut off date which was midnight on Saturday.

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However, last night the rail operator came out fighting saying that it had hit all the targets required during a recent monitoring period and that despite the franchise extension no longer being automatic it believed there was no reason why a further three years should not be granted to the company.

But MPs feel that while performance indicators may have been met National Express's East Anglian services still fail to meet up to expectations.

Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, said: "The service provided by National Express to my constituents and others in East Anglia has been very patchy.

"There have been numerous assurances from the company over the years about improvements to service quality but there continue to be serious unpredicted delays

and many of my constituents find that the quality of the train service between Norfolk and London Liverpool Street Station is unacceptable.

"Many would say that there have been too many serious delays and that, although Network Rail must take some of the responsibility, the present service provided by our train operating company is not good enough.

"I believe that the Department for Transport must keep under serious consideration the possibility of terminating the National Express franchise for East Anglia in 2011."

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he agreed that the threat of losing the franchise in 2011 should be used as a way of forcing National Express to up its game but said: "There is a case for removing the franchise now and I know that the government has looked at the possibility.

"If that does not happen then it has to be held over them as a treat to improve standards.

"There is a lot of dissatisfaction about performance. They can meet punctuality targets but we are still left with a service which is substandard"

Earlier this month the general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, Bob Crow, demanded the government "get off the fence" and strip National Express of its remaining franchises under a cross-default clause.

When news that National Express was preparing to walk away from its East Coast franchise in July, transport secretary, Lord Adonis said he would look at taking other rail franchises owned by the company away but at that time National Express said it would fight any such move in the courts and the government has made no further statement on the idea.

Last night Jonathan Denby from National Express said the company was meeting the required standard in the region.

He said: "National Express met all its commitments on its East Anglian and South Eastern services.

"We are still committed to rail and to continuing to operate these franchises.

"We are on course to hit the targets that would entitle us to an extension. The only thing that has changed is that the extension is no longer automatic.

"Having met the targets we believe there is no reason for them not to grant us the franchise."