The days when Britain’s trains were run by state-owned British Rail are long gone, but today’s private rail operators aren’t competing in a free market as we would normally understand it.
Taxpayers still subsidise train operators by billions of pounds each year.
And there’s very little real risk involved in running a rail franchise.
Indeed, if an operator’s business plan does contain any realistic risk of failure, the Department for Transport won’t give them the franchise in the first place.
In other words, running a rail business is a license to print money. That’s not to say a franchise can never fail, but as long as the initial business plan makes sense and the nation isn’t hit by economic catastrophe, it shouldn’t.
For this reason, talk about improvements to the rail network services offered by train operating companies, welcome as they may be, leave something of a sour taste in the mouth.
Passengers are encouraged to feel grateful, but they are actually paying for these improvements, whether through taxes or fares.
Meanwhile, operating companies enjoy the profits.
It’s not their fault - they didn’t create the system and they may well be industrious and responsible businesses. But the whole franchise process is somewhat unedifying.
Turning specifically to the West Coast Main Line, it must be acknowledged that services have improved almost beyond measure during its stewardship under Virgin Trains.
Once known as “the misery line”, the West Coast Main Line is no longer a source of despair for commuters. Trains run frequently than in the past, journeys are faster and the carriages are pleasant enough, assuming you’re able to find a seat.
But again, without wanting to be unfair to Virgin and its staff, it’s worth noting that much of this was funded by the Government, which upgraded the West Coast Main Line and subsidised the lease of new trains - trains which will now be transferred to the new rail operator, FirstDirect.
Virgin also invested heavily in the service, but in the context of making a healthy profit. And while Sir Richard Branson’s commitment to customer service is sincere, his battle to retain the franchise is also motivated primarily by a desire to continue operating a highly profitable business. Virgin Trains is not a charity and doesn’t pretend to be.
Good for him, but customers are entitled to be equally hard-headed. A clever PR campaign, support from celebrities and Sir Richard’s charisma cannot decide who should receive a rail franchise.
There’s nothing surprising or inherently worrying about a franchise going to a new operator when it comes up for renewal. And while it’s always possible that the Department for Transport’s army of civil servants has made a mistake, we really have little choice but to trust that they know what they are doing when it comes to deciding the winner.