"What makes King’s Cross unique among London’s mainline stations? Why do passengers who use the station rate most of its train services the very best in the country? What are the lessons for the rest of the rail network?
The answer is competition. Tonight at King’s Cross, passengers heading north can choose between three high-speed train operators.
They can compare prices and timings as they decide which service best fits their budget and schedule.
But this popular scenario is only happening at King’s Cross. Passengers elsewhere have the right to ask why.
When John Major’s government privatised the railways, the Government white paper pledged to “improve the quality of railway services by creating new opportunities for private sector involvement, more competition, greater efficiency and a wider choice of services more closely tailored to what customers want”.
Many travellers will roll their eyes when they read this based on their own experiences, but the latest National Rail Passenger Survey shows that many of these ambitions are being delivered at King’s Cross where the main franchise, Virgin East Coast, competes with two ‘open access’ operators.
Trains from this station record the highest passenger satisfaction ratings in the country. Grand Central tops the list with 96%, closely followed by rival Hull Trains on 94% and Virgin East Coast with 88% satisfaction.
Similarly these operators also come top on value for money, reliability, punctuality, getting a seat and station facilities.
The message is clear: when train companies face competition, they raise their game. They deliver better services at competitive fares because they have to fight for passengers.
This rivalry is also delivering innovative offerings such as free Wi-Fi, special ticket deals and new routes as operators constantly look to serve new towns and cities and boost their offering. Competition is helping drive all of this.
It is a very different story at London’s other mainline stations. At Paddington, Great Western enjoys an effective monopoly on services across vast swathes of western England and Wales.
Consequently, there is no competition on long distance fares where only 50% of passengers think tickets are good value.
Similarly, at Liverpool Street where Greater Anglia services enjoy a ‘railopoly’ to serve eastern England, just 36% of travellers said tickets were value for money.
Compare this with the average of the three competing King’s Cross services at 66%. The troubled Southern franchise scored just 35% approval.
It is now 25 years since the Conservatives privatised the railways and the key pledges of more competition and choice are still to be delivered at most of London’s stations.
King’s Cross shows it works in the interests of the passenger and the railway. It is a solid test case which ministers need to appreciate and expand."