Public Affairs: Soap Box - Jim Dickson, director, Four Public Affairs

It probably seemed to the Department for Transport like a deft piece of news management.

Patrick McLoughlin announced Virgin Trains' 23-month extension to its West Coast Mainline franchise on the same day the Government responded to the Laidlaw report, its mea culpa for the summer's fiasco over the First Group 'contract' that wasn't.

With the award clearly designed both to put a smile back on Sir Richard Branson's face and to impart the impression that it is business as usual on UK railways, ministers succeeded only in underscoring the peculiar hiatus in which the network now finds itself.

The dynamism that was to be unleashed by longer franchises and fresh thinking has been replaced by uncertainty and delay.

Important investment decisions on new rolling stock are on hold. Plans for service improvements paused.

The best message that the Department for Transport is able to offer is 'more of the same'. The 'glad confident morning' has somehow been replaced by tinkering with the management structures at Great Minster House.

For their part the train operating companies must find a way to convince the public that the new services, better customer care and greater punctuality that consumers make clear they want can be achieved without further raids on passengers' rapidly shrinking wallets.

The last thing the train operators want is for Eurostar chairman Richard Brown's soon-to-be-published review of the franchising system to recommend radical change.

With passenger numbers remaining buoyant despite the double-dip recession and EU policy finally edging towards the UK approach, the franchise system looks likely to remain the only show in town.

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