National Express stripped of East Coast Mainline franchise

1 July 2009

We're struggling to shed a tear at the news that the East Coast Mainline franchise has been stripped from National Express and will be taken into public ownership. It's actually more of a carnival atmosphere in the Bitterwallet office - Andy is dressed like that bird with the ostrich feathers you always see in photos of Mardi Gras.

The East Coast Mainline has lost National Express £20 million in the first six months of this year alone, a drop in the ocean compared to the £1.2 billion of debt the company is carrying. The Government refused requests to renegotiate the tender, which National Express was due to operate until 2015. National Express has stated that the "challenging economic environment" meant fewer passengers on the East Coast Mainline and "significant" levels of people were downgrading from first-class and full fares. The company itself was, of course, blameless. The Government has said that all tickets bought will be honoured.

So where did it all go wrong for such a friendly, caring company? Bitterwallet has some thoughts:

It shouldn't cost less to fly to London

National Express had capacity. They had frequency - over 30 direct trains between Newcastle and London every weekday. They had wifi! Taking into account security checks, boarding times and transfers into central London, they had time on their side too. Yet a passenger could often pay far more to take the train, than the plane - on the day or even with several days' notice. How could National Express possibly, possibly screw this up?

It shouldn't cost less to drive to London

Even with the cost of petrol being what it is, I can still drive 250 miles to London and back for less than a return ticket (or even a single ticket) bought on the day, and usually in advance. Stick three other people in the car with me, and suddenly the role of the train as a cost efficient alternative is a nonsense of a shambles, cocooned in fuckwittery.

Who cares about first class?

National Express point the finger of blame at the customers, because not enough people booked first class and instead plumped for the cheap seats. That's because they didn't offer a first class experience. In fact the perks of the first class carriage on trains hasn't changed for years. A little more legroom? Free tea and coffee? Other operators offer these as standard. A reading lamp? A free newspaper? That's the difference between a £105 return ticket from Newcastle to London, and paying £373 to travel first class? Are you fucking insane?

National Express treated customers dreadfully

We've talked at lengths about the dreadful company-centric policies of their customer care, despite it being customers that determine the expectations of a service. Their customer service policies were archaic, unwelcoming and positively hostile towards the people paying for them. Why couldn't I have a replacement ticket if I lost mine? Why couldn't I buy a cut-price ticket on the day of travel, even the train was empty? Why did National Express offer paper vouchers as compensation for a booking made online, forcing the customer to book their next journey at a station without the online discount they benefited from in the first place? Everything about the business was geared towards maximising their own profits rather than delivering the best possible service for the customer.

Goodbye National Express East Coast Mainline, we never loved you. Hopefully your successor will give more of a damn about running a railway on behalf of its passengers.


  • TimS
    Bang on the button. On the loathsome times I'm forced to head anywhere south of Sheffield I would prefer to take the train - being able to watch a DVD, play on the internet - or even have a cold beer (not that I'd pay buffet-car prices!). At the prices charged though? No way. I can drive both ways for cheaper than a single bought in advance. And that's including a railcard. Ps. When a mate gave me his free upgrade to first class I have to admit I was disappointed. And that was free.
  • chrisg.
    I had a rather excellent fillet steak in first class recently. The ticket was about £110 return in first class from Peterborough to Edinburgh. Still too expensive though.
  • Spag
    i thought National Express run coaches
  • Inactive
    Is this a gradual return to British Rail?
  • Tsoek C.
    I think they should renationalise the train system. Too many inconsistancies on the level of service across the UK. Was the British Rail service any better after or before privatisation?
  • Naomi
    Don't forget their absolutely genius move of charging £2.50 if you want to reserve a seat.
  • Mark T.
    @ Tsoek Cheung British Rail was a shambles, you must be very young not to remember that.
  • Nobby
    I regularly travel from Glasgow to York on NXEC and find the prices very good. I book in advance, and singles are always less than £20, although more than the £11 I used to pay when it was GNER. I find their service way better than Cross Country on other routes.
  • Stuart A.
    I occasionally travel with National Express East Anglia, and nearly every time I end up getting compensation vouchers due to the trains being terrifyingly late or completely non-existent. And thanks to this article, I've just realised that I can't even use said vouchers online.
  • Paul S.
    Sorry Stuart. It's an entirely miserable situation and one that doesn't make much sense, given that you can buy tickets online. And create online accounts. And enter promotional codes. What happens, as you'll have figured out, is that you pay £X for a ticket online that includes a 10% online discount. Your train is then delayed and as per the Customer Charter, you receive vouchers for Y% of the amount you paid. Except you can't spend the vouchers online, you have to spend them in person at a station, so no 10% online discount. So you try and book the same journey at the same price again (for example) and instead of paying £X (which was 90% of the full price), you instead pay £X + 11.1%. I think. My algebra is a little rusty. Regardless, issuing paper vouchers for ticket purchased online is a scam, because you can't purchase a like-for-like ticket without paying considerably more.
  • Tsoek C.
    @Mark Thompson, Yep, never been on train when under British Rail management.

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