National Express... off the rails

Paul Hill, business editor The government decided yesterday that National Express is going off the rails. East Anglia suddenly has the transport secretary's ear - even if the Treasury is holding his wallet.

Paul Hill, business editor

The government decided yesterday that National Express is going off the rails. East Anglia suddenly has the transport secretary's ear - even if the Treasury is holding his wallet. Business editor Paul Hill reports on a chance for the region to lobby for much-needed investment in our railways.

Passengers have been riding the rails for the best part of 180 years - and what they've wanted from the railways probably hasn't changed much all that much.

A fast, reliable, clean and comfortable service.

Yet here we are at the end of the first decade of the 21st century still worrying about being able to get a seat, still worrying if we'll make it to our destination on time.

So what is changed by yesterday's decision by the transport secretary Lord Adonis to strip National Express of the right to run train services in East Anglia after March 2011?

Most Read

Everything and nothing.

Nothing will change for the next 16 months - it'll be business as usual, with National Express continuing to operate services, including the Norwich to London line.

But everything is up for debate.

Come the New Year and Lord Adonis will open a formal consultation about what rail services in East Anglia should look like before drafting a new franchise and inviting train companies to bid for the operating contract next summer.

Yesterday , National Express had relatively little to say publicly about the decision - other than to say it “disappointing” but only to be expected after being stripped of the London to Scotland East Coast Mainline by ministers earlier this year.

But privately, executives may well have felt hard done by - kicked in East Anglia for a funding debacle in a separate bit of the business. Equally, they believe they have done a good job with the funds at hand in East Anglia and on the Norwich to London line and claim that they have met and exceeded what was demanded of them by the government to see the contract extended beyond 2011 to 2014.

It is also true to say the service National Express has suffered from the shortcomings of Network Rail, the body that runs tracks and signalling.

If the signals at Shenfield fail on the Norwich to London line, there's little National Express can do about it - even though it is the company with the carriages of unhappy and frustrated passengers.

However, East Anglians can have only looked on in envy in recent years while train operators elsewhere - notably the Virgin Group on the West Coast Mainline - have invested in newer, faster-rolling stock. Think of Virgin's tilting high-speed Pendolinos .

Ironically, some of Virgin's cast-offs - second-hand carriages - now roll on East Anglian rails.

National Express has also lurched from one crisis to another in recent times. First the loss of the East Coast Mainline, then a flurry of on-off takeovers, including abortive bids from its biggest shareholder, the Cosmen family, and rival operator Stagecoach.

But Lord Adonis's decision yesterday presents East Anglia with an opportunity.

The region now has the transport secretary's ear - even if the increasingly cash-strapped Treasury still holds his wallet.

An embyronic lobbying campaign was showing signs of life even before yesterday's decision - and business groups and public bodies were quick to publish their “wish-list” of improvements.

Those improvements range from shaving 20 minutes off the journey time from Norwich to London, to introducing wi-fi internet on trains.

But there are some other short-term questions and uncertainties that need addressing.

National Express is going, someone knew is coming in. So who will sort out services from East Anglia to the London Olympics in 2012?

Under the timetable sketched out by the Department for Transport yesterday the new East Anglian rail franchise will be opened for tender next summer - either just before or just after a general election.

What would a change of government mean - a change of transport policy?

Might an incoming government decide to think again before signing on the dotted line with a new rail operator?

What happens to services then?