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National Express – Running out of steam on the east coast mainline

The east coast mainline from London to Edinburgh is a ‘premium route’. This means that it is one of the lines in the UK that is profitable. When the franchises come up for renewal on such lines, potential operators bid to pay the government for the franchise. National Express won the eight-year franchise in 2007 for a total of £1.4 billion, paid in annual rising instalments.

Although the east coast mainline is still profitable, the recession has meant that passenger numbers have been insufficient for National Express to make its annual payments to the Department for Transport and still be left with a profit. As a result, the government will take the franchise into public ownership later this year. This specially created nationalised company will then operate trains on the route until a new franchise is awarded to a private company at the end of 2010.

So why has this proved necessary? Is it all down do the depth of the recession? Or was the £1.4 billion cost of the franchise unrealistically expensive? Would the answer be for National Express to merge with another operator, such as the First Group? Or should the government be prepared to waive, or at least reduce, the franchise payments until passenger numbers are growing fast enough? Or is it time to rethink the whole UK model of rail privatisation and perhaps return to a nationalised rail system? The articles below consider the issues.

National Express loses East Coast line Independent (2/7/09)
National Express goes off the rails on east coast line Times Online (4/7/09)
Q&A: the future of National Express and the east coast mainline rail service Guardian (1/7/09)
East Coast main line: Q&A Telegraph (2/7/09)
Runaway train: The crisis in the rail sector Scotsman (5/7/09)
First Group sets sights on East Coast Business7 (3/7/09)
National Express’s decision to quit East Coast franchise is a lose-lose for nearly everyone Telegraph (4/7/09)
Focus turns to rail franchise system Financial Times (2/7/09)
Rail network: red signals ahead Guardian (2/7/09)
Have we reached the end of the line for privatisation? Observer (5/7/09)
Privatisation has been a train wreck: Ken Livingstone Guardian (2/7/09)
New Capitalism: Old Capitalism except taxpayer money is at risk: Iain Macwhirter Sunday Herald (5/7/09)

Questions

  1. Consider the relative merits of temporary nationalisation of the east coast mainline services with providing temporary support for National Express.
  2. Should profitable rail franchises be awarded to the highest bidder? Similarly, should loss-making franchises be awarded to companies bidding for the lowest subsidy?
  3. Discuss the arguments for and against a complete re-nationalisation of the railways.
  4. With reference to the final article above, explain what is meant by a Special Purpose Vehicle and whether it was an appropriate means for National Express to fund its £1.4 billion franchise. What dangers are associated with this and other new forms of ‘no-risk capitalism’? Is there a ‘moral hazard’ in this form of capitalism?
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