Student Voice: Franchise shambles shows up unaffordable railways

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CHARLES Crook, a 19-year-old foundation degree journalism student at University Centre Milton Keynes, explains why train passengers are the real losers from the Government’s bungled railway franchising process.

WHEN the government initially awarded the current Virgin Trains franchise to First Group, there seemed little to indicate the fiasco that followed.

The only indication something might be amiss was the usual agitation from Sir Richard Branson, who felt he was cheated out of the franchise. But just as it seemed a smooth transition was about to take place, he was proved right with a stunning expose that has blown the new contract apart and raised questions about government rail policy.

Nobody can deny the awarding of the West Coast train service to First Group and then repealing said award has been a monumental mistake by the civil service. The government has lost at least £100million, as well as the knock-on effects of putting on hold up to 15 other franchise contests while everything is sorted out.

This just increases the extreme cost of the railways. People travelling on the British railway network pay Europe’s most expensive fares – an annual season ticket from Milton Keynes Central to London including Tube travel is over £5,000 a year, not to mention parking charges.

One person of course who will be delighted both by the ruling and the fact his franchise has a contract extension for at least a year is, of course, Branson. The big money and flawed privatisation has made the trains lucrative business.

Big government subsidies and equally massive fares helped Virgin Trains make profits of over £750million in 2011.

Virgin runs high-profile expensive express trains. Turn up at Milton Keynes Central and huge fees are required to travel, especially during peak hours.

Obviously people can point to advance fares – I got £60 off my fare from Milton Keynes to Birmingham by booking three weeks in advance. But at the same time people may have to change plans at the last minute, and will be more likely to get expensive fares.

If people cannot afford the train tickets, then people will begin to desert the network.

Former Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond called it right when he called the railways “a rich man’s toy” during his period in office, but neither he nor any other of the secretaries in charge since privatisation in the 1990s has got any control of the system.

Despite the status quo being favoured by the main political parties, the fragmented operation of the railway network has increased the overall cost and the probability of a major backroom failure.

It seemed that when the line out of Kings Cross station was given up twice after companies risked bankruptcy to run the trains that we might learn the system was broken, but this shambles has gone further.

Under Virgin a lot of progress has been made to transform the service, with more reliable trains running more often, and the reputation of Branson drew attention to and helped reveal the flaws in the franchising process. But it merely distracts from the fact the railway network is becoming vastly unaffordable and more needs to be done to stop people being priced out of travelling.

> If you are interested in studying for a foundation degree in journalism at University Centre Milton Keynes apply via UCAS (course code P502) or email