The Labour government took a couple of good decisions whilst generally making the railway unaccountable, expensive and not very friendly to passengers. They allowed First Hull and Grand Central Railways access to Network Rail’s tracks to act as challengers to the established franchise holder.
The results have been excellent. First Hull has the highest passenger satisfaction ratings out of all 23 rail operators. Grand Central has pioneered books of ten tickets, more anytime tickets and cheaper fares. They have offered direct services to London for cities like Sunderland, Halifax and Bradford. First Hull provides 14 trains a day between Hull and London ,compared to 1 prior to their challenge. Both companies offer free wifi for all travellers. I have had the chance to read the latest case for open access to train lines and to question the lobby group that backs it.
If the challengers did not provide routes people want to travel and service levels people do not like, these companies would fail. Unlike the franchise holders who have access to subsidies, the challengers have to provide their own capital and need to sell enough seats to pay the bills.
More importantly, they provide a check on what the monopoly franchise holder and state monopoly track owner are telling us about what can be done and what the public want. The successful challenger companies proved that there was spare capacity on the East coast mainline, and they could run services using the slots available to find new passenger demand and service other cities along the route. They showed that the pattern of demand was not just as the franchise holder said, and showed they could innovate on service.
We need more challenger railway companies and offers. Apparently there is scope for a new fast service to Edinburgh using current track, and more spare capacity on both the east and west coast mainlines. One of the interesting things about our railway is how empty the tracks often are. Of course there needs to be proper safety gaps between trains, but the present gaps are considerably longer in many cases than the prudent safety advice. The task should be to improve what we have got, especially as there is a lot of public money lined up in the non HS2 rail budgets for the years ahead.