Rail union steps up franchise battle

THE UK's biggest rail union today stepped up its demand for bus and train group National Express to be stripped of its East Anglia rail franchise.

THE UK's biggest rail union today stepped up its demand for bus and train group National Express to be stripped of its East Anglia rail franchise.

The call from the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) came after it emerged that National Express will formally had back its loss-making East Coast franchise to public ownership on December 12.

National Express warned in July that it planned to walk away from the East Coast franchise - covering routes from London King's Cross to Scotland and North-East England via Peterborough - when the �40million of support to which it was committed under the deal ran out.

Ministers at the Department for Transport responded by threatening to strip the group of its two other rail franchises - National Express East Anglia, which covers routes out of Liverpool Street, and south Essex commuter route c2c, from Fenchurch Street to Southend - under so-called “cross default” clauses.

According to an internal Government briefing disclosed by the RMT, the DfT does not expect the East Coast operation to be handed over to a new franchisee until the middle of 2011 - several months later than originally expected.

In the meantime, rail services will remain the same but the operation will be rebranded simply as “East Coast”, with National Express names and logos being removed from trains and stations “as cost effectively and as soon as practicable”, according to the briefing.

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Recently introduced staff uniforms will largely be retained, but staff will be issued to new ties and scarves, it adds.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, today called for the renationalisation of the East Coast operation to be made permanent, as well as demanding that National Express be stripped of its other franchises.

“Now that the Government have set out a clear timetable for renationalising the East Coast main line from December 12, RMT is demanding an absolute assurance that this will be a permanent move that recognises the chaotic failures of privatisation on this prestige route on the UK rail network,” he said.

“We are also demanding that the Government get off the fence and strip National Express of their two other franchises - c2c and East Anglia - under the cross-default clause. Anything else would be a reward for failure on a massive scale.”

Mr Crow added: “We also want a clear recognition of the hard work and dedication of staff who have kept the East Coast main line running throughout the privatisation fiasco and an assurance that there will be no attacks on their benefits or working conditions.”

National Express is likely to resist any attempt by the Government to invoke the cross-default clauses, arguing that it has complied fully with the terms of the East Coast franchise under which its liability does not extend beyond the �40million of support provided.

The East Coast operation has plunged into the red - losing �20million in the first half of this year alone - as a result of falling revenues being insufficient to cover the hefty premiums due to the Government under the terms of the franchise.

An attempt by the group to renegotiate the terms of the deal was rebuffed by the Government earlier this year.

It is the second time in three years that the Government has been forced to take back control of the East Coast route, with previous operator GNER having failed in 2006.