The sale of the C2C rail franchise – labelled by consumer groups as the best network into London – has once again sparked concerns that Britain's railways are being taken over by foreign, often state-owned, firms.
Sources close to the firm were at pains to stress the move had nothing to do with the ongoing raft of industrial action that is slamming the brakes on Britain's transport sector.
Unions have piped up that the sale to a new entrant – this time, state-backed Italian firm Trenitalia – is proof that the government is standing by and letting foreign companies take over Britain's railways instead of grabbing the bull by the horns and bringing the network back under public ownership.
In fact, according to the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, 70 per cent of Britain's railways are now under foreign ownership to some degree.
Devil in the detail
On the face of it, overseas operators do play a major part in running the UK's railways.
But because many overseas transport firms are involved through joint venture agreements with UK companies, it isn't quite as simple as saying there is a growing dominance by firms outside of the UK.
Before today, the main three companies from overseas were German stated-owned Deutsche Bahn, the international arm of the Netherland's nation operator, Abellio, and French firm Keolis.
Keolis has been a rather quiet minority owner of Govia, the firm that owns Southern rail – arguably the network that has been blighted most by industrial action over the last year.
|Caledonian Sleeper||Serco Caledonian Sleepers||Serco||UK plc|
|Chiltern||Arriva||Deutsche Bahn||German private joint-stock|
|Cross Country||Arriva||Deutsche Bahn||German private joint-stock|
|Docklands Light Railway||Keolis Amey Docklands||Amey (30%) Keolis (70%)||UK firm owned by Spain's Ferrovial /French part-state owned company|
|Essex Thameside||C2C||Trenitalia||Italian state-owned|
|East Midlands||East Midlands Trains||Stagecoach||UK plc|
|Virgin East Coast||Stagecoach and Virgin trains||Virgin / Stagecoach||UK private company/plc|
|Gatwick Express||Govia Thameslink||Go-ahead (65%) Keolis (35%)||UK private company/French part-state owned company|
|Grand Central||Arriva||Deutsche Bahn||German private joint-stock|
|Greater Anglia||Greater Anglia||Abellio||Dutch state-owned|
|Great Western||First Great Western||First Group||UK plc|
|London Midland||London Midland Railway||Go-ahead (65%) Keolis (35%)||UK private company/French part-state owned company|
|London Overground||Arriva Rail London||Deutsche Bahn||German private joint-stock|
|Northern||Arriva Northern||Deutsche Bahn||German private joint-stock|
|South West||South West Trains||Stagecoach||UK plc|
|Southern||GTR||Go-ahead (65%) Keolis (35%)||UK private company/French part-state owned company|
|South Eastern||South Eastern||Go-ahead (65%) Keolis (35%)||UK private company/French part-state owned company|
|Thameslink||GTR||Go-ahead (65%) Keolis (35%)||UK private company/French part-state owned company|
|TransPennine||First TransPennine Express||First Group||UK plc|
|Tyne & Wear Metro||DB Regio Tyne and Wear||Deutsche Bahn||German private joint-stock|
|Wales & Borders||Arriva||Deutsche Bahn||German private joint-stock|
|West Coast||Virgin West Coast||Virgin / Stagecoach||UK private company/plc|
|Hull||First Hull Trains||First Group||UK plc|
|Merseyrail||Merseyrail||Serco (50%) Abellio (50%)||UK plc|
|Eurostar||Eurostar||SNCF (55%) SNCB (5%)
+ private investors
|French state-owned company/Belgian state-owned company|
|Heathrow Express||Heathrow Express||Heathrow Airport Holdings||UK private company|
|Heathrow Connect||Heathrow Connect||Heathrow Airport Holdings/First Group||UK private company/plc|
British Rail? Not as we know it
The general secretary of drivers union Aslef, Mick Whelan, responded to National Express' sale of the C2C franchise by asking: "When will the government admit that rail franchising has failed and do the only sensible thing which is to return all UK rail operations to public ownership?"
However, analysts pointed out the rationale for overseas interest in the UK.
"International operators want to buy into the UK to drive growth in passenger volumes as do the privatised UK franchise operators," said Alex Paterson of Investec.
Paterson adds that although the likes of Deutsche Bahn are state-backed, "they are run commercially and for the benefit of passengers, unlike nationalised UK businesses".
Britain's railways carried passenger volumes of 1.6bn in 2016, this compares with volumes of 735m in 1995, just as the privatisation of the UK's rail network began.
Paterson highlights this was a fall from volumes of just over 1bn in 1948, when British Rail was first brought in to run the network. He said:
Nationalisation has led to falling passenger usage and privatisation has led to rising passenger usage.
Nationalised UK industries have shown unequivocally, that they cannot operate commercially. International arms of European state owned operators have worked commercially.