A longer wait for rail investment

Simon Burns said what everyone else in the room was probably thinking: "It's a mess, its unacceptable and it should never happen again."

The minister for railways was giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee about the plans to offer new rail franchises, most of which have had to be put on hold following the shambles over the West Coast mainline.

Why does it matter? Because the new rail franchises are going to run for between seven and 15 years. Long enough for the new operators to put in investment and improve facilities and services for travellers.

But last month, the government announced that nearly every new rail franchise in the region will start late: c2c Thameside in Essex and Thameslink, which should have new franchises this summer will have to wait until next year. The new Greater Anglia franchise, originally due to start in 2014, won't start until October 2016 while the West Coast mainline won't be renewed until 2017.

It was all put on hold after it emerged there were flaws in the tendering process for the West Coast mainline. Now that the problem has been resolved, why the delay?

"We don't want to overload the market," explained Mr Burns, MP for Chelmsford. "To allow proper competition we can only put out three or four a year for tender."

But one line is still running to time: the East coast mainline which runs through Peterborough and Stevenage, will be re-privatised with a new franchise that will start in 2015.

'Infusion of innovation'

This has raised some eyebrows among Labour MPs, who pointed out to Mr Burns the line was running perfectly well in state controlled hands.

In the last three years it's made £650m for the taxpayer. Why prioritise that line over the West Coast mainline, wondered committee member Lucy Powell.

"It's performed reasonably well," said Mr Burns."However, the service has plateaued. What it needs is an infusion of innovation which only the private sector can do." The line had recently come bottom for punctuality. What was needed he said was some "imaginative investment".

The West Coast mainline, he said, was continuing to improve and he was confident that Virgin could "build and sustain" the service.

Of greater concern though was London Midland, which has had a number of reliability problems.

"I am keeping a close eye on them as a result of those problems which I consider unacceptable," he said.

With the West Coast problems behind him, Mr Burns hopes his new timetable for franchises will provide reassurance for the industry and long-term investment for the passenger.

It may well do - but most of us will have to wait a little bit longer.