Leaders: Public deserves better over rail bid shambles
WHEN Richard Branson cried foul on the decision that stripped his rail company of the west coast line between Scotland and London, many observers dismissed his comments as sour grapes.
The Virgin mogul was simply being a bad loser, they suggested, after he raised doubts about the credibility of the tendering process.
Now it seems he was entirely justified. Yesterday’s decision by the Department for Transport to halt the process because of “technical flaws” in the methodology that handed the route to FirstGroup has vindicated Mr Branson. It has also handed him a lifeline in his bid to retain the lucrative route as one of the jewels in his international travel empire.
Three DfT civil servants have apparently been suspended while the process comes under intense scrutiny to see what went wrong. So far, the way risk assessments were conducted has been identified as a problematic area, as well as how projected passenger numbers were handled. The specifics of this foul-up must be identified and addressed. But the question must be asked how such a massive contract, of such national importance, was mismanaged.
Labour politicians, including leader Ed Miliband, are already asking whether this was a political failure as well as a technical failure, and whether this is yet another symptom of a coalition government “omnishambles”.
How long it will take to resolve this massive problem is anyone’s guess. Scottish politicians are already asking if there will be implications for the tendering process for the ScotRail franchise, which is up for grabs in two years’ time. Is this process – which is under the control of the Scottish Government but mirrors the procedures used by Westminster in the west coast process – still sound? Frankly, we do not know. This is a mess, and reflects poorly on all the government and regulatory agencies involved.
More generally, this saga raises some searching questions about how we run our railways and whether the current system truly serves the public interest. When the process of privatising British Rail began in 1993, it was intended to bring some free market innovation and investment into a public utility that had grown complacent. Since then, it has become clear that privatisation brings its own problems – Railtrack was effectively taken out of private hands in 2002 after a series of failings, the UK government stepping in in a way that has become familiar with the rescue of some of Britain’s biggest banks.
Does the latest rail fiasco lend weight to argument for the renationalisation of rail, as some on the left argue? It certainly adds some weight to the argument, and forces proponents of privately-owned services to defend their position. Rail is a crucial part of the infrastructure of these islands. Our economic efficiency relies on the ability to transport people and goods with minimum fuss and at a fair price. We deserve better than this.
Potting shed is a garden of delights
In a rough-and-tumble world of cut-throat business practices, as the chill wind of austerity threatens many economic livelihoods, it is reassuring to know there are some places of refuge where the most pressing issue is what soil is suited to primulas, and what fertiliser will be best for your tatties.
Our gardens provide many an escape from the rigours of the modern world, and so do programmes such as Radio Scotland’s Beechgrove Potting Shed. There, in the safe hands of the programme’s regular experts with their seasonal gardening tips, the outside world is an irrelevance as host and listener alike tend to more pressing concerns of the green-fingered variety.
The news we report today, that the programme is under threat as part of a wide-ranging reorganisation within the station, will be greeted with dismay by many devoted listeners.
BBC Scotland promises its
gardening coverage will not be lost, but will instead be repacked elsewhere in its schedules. But that will be little consolation to those for whom the Potting Shed is part of the fabric of their lives, and a moment of meditative escape from other cares and concerns.
Cicero said if you have a garden and library you have everything you need. The programme planners might want to reflect on the fact that many of their listeners would add to that list a rather good gardening programme.
For hundreds of thousands of Scots, gardening is not just a hobby or a pastime, it is something that provides a precious connection with the soil and with nature and deserves programmes that respect and do justice to the part it plays in enriching our lives.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South