Labour made headlines in May 2017 with their manifesto’s bold proposal to “bring private rail companies back into public ownership as their franchises expire or, in other cases, with franchise reviews or break clauses.” Their nationalisation of the rail companies would reverse the state of affairs put in place by John Major’s Conservative government in the mid-90s and take control of the railways away from private train operating companies (TOC).
Should Labour’s proposal go ahead, many TOCs would stay in control of their franchises until the 2020s. The nature of the franchise agreements and Labour’s promise is that re-nationalisation would only begin once existing franchising contracts come to an end or where there are reviews and break clauses that would allow the government to take control back sooner.
For the first article in our Spotlight On series, we take a look at the current state of affairs so that you can learn more about the industry’s biggest players, including when their existing franchises are due to expire. In some instances, the TOCs’ accounts are spread across multiple companies. Where this is the case, we’ve displayed the stats of the largest financially, and included a link to the search we performed using the Company Check database, where you can see all of the results under that business’s name.
Arriva UK Trains
Owned by German transport company Deutsche Bahn, Arriva UK Trains is by far the biggest TOC in the country, owning three separate rail franchises across the UK.
Franchises: Chiltern (expires 2021), Northern (2025), Wales and borders (2018)
Net worth: £154.5 million
Current assets: £15.8 million
Current liabilities: £50.6 million
When the government privatised the rail network, they assumed that companies in the road, air and sea travel and shipping industries would bid on the new franchises. While bids from the latter two industries failed to arise, Stagecoach is an example of a company already active in bus and coach travel that became a big player in the rail industry. With their franchises coming to an end soon, a Labour election win could mean big changes in the near future.
Franchises: East Midlands (2018), South Western (2017)
Net worth: £-49,600,000
Current assets: £793 million
Current liabilities: £1 billion
A company with a broad transport portfolio, FirstGroup is active across the UK and North America, with services including the Greyhound in the US and Canada, and First Bus, which enjoys a fifth of the bus market share outside of London.
Franchises: Great Western (2019), TransPennine Express (2023)
Net worth: £-289.7 million
Current assets: £1.1 billion
Current liabilities: £1.4 billion
While you may not have heard of Govia, you’ll definitely have seen one of their franchises in the news. Govia owns Southern Rail, the service which has been severely disrupted by industrial action in recent months. Interestingly, Govia itself is actually a company formed by two others, Go-Ahead and Keolis, who worked together when the rail network was first privatised to win more franchises.
Franchises: Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern (2021), West Midlands (TBA)
Net worth: £6.3 million
Current assets: £541,000
Current liabilities: £43.3 million
Arriva UK Trains isn’t the only European-owned business to own a franchise. Abellio’s HQ is in Utrecht, with continental rail services in both the Netherlands and Germany.
Franchises: ScotRail (2025)
Net worth: £38.3 million
Current assets: £17.7 million
Current liabilities: £7.8 million
West Coast Trains
West Coast Trains is the only TOC to bear the name of its franchise. It’s actually jointly owned by Virgin and Stagecoach, two big players in the private rail industry.
Franchises: West Coast (2017)
Net worth: £37.6 million
Current assets: £171.3 million
Current liabilities: £144.4 million
There are three more TOCs that own franchises, including Virgin- and Stagecoach-owned Inter City Railways, and National Express’s NXET Trains.
|NXET Trains||Essex Thameside (2029)||£16.8 million|
|Inter City Railways||East Coast (2023)||£11 million|
|Serco||Caledonian Sleeper (2030)||£-319.1 million|