VIRGIN is to be given a short-term franchise to run the West Coast main line, as the government tries to open a new bid to run the service between Glasgow and London.
• Virgin franchise to be extended beyond December 9
• Deal with FirstGroup collapsed over flaws in process
The announcement by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin came as Labour attacked the coalition’s handling of the bid, branding it “yet another staggering example of the monumental incompetence of the shambles of the government”.
Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle argued it was ministers who were responsible and who redesigned franchising policy to make it “much more difficult to calculate which bidder should win”.
She told MPs in the House of Commons: “It’s a failure of policy, a failure of process, a failure of ministerial oversight and a failure of ministerial leadership.”
Virgin Trains lost out to rival transport company Aberdeen based FirstGroup in the battle to operate a new 13-year West Coast franchise.
But after Sir Richard Branson mounted a legal challenge to the Department for Transport (DfT) decision, the government this month scrapped the franchise competition after “significant technical flaws” were found in the process. FirstGroup had been due to take over services on the line from 9 December.
Mr McLoughlin said the DfT would negotiate with Virgin for the company to continue running West Coast services for a short period – expected to be between nine and 13 months –while a competition was run for an interim franchise agreement. This agreement, open to any bidders, would then run until the new long-term West Coast agreement was ready to start.
Mr McLoughlin said Virgin remaining as an operator for a short period was the best way forward, while Virgin said it would be working hard to “continue to provide a good service”.
But rail unions, which had hoped the government would run West Coast in the public sector after 9 December, criticised Mr McLoughlin’s decision.
Virgin has run West Coast since 1997 and Sir Richard was appalled when in August the DfT announced that FirstGroup would be taking over.
Questioning FirstGroup’s franchise promises and launching his legal challenge, Sir Richard had described the bidding process as “insane”. It was while preparing its case against the legal challenge that the DfT discovered the flaws in the bidding.
The DfT’s original decision was made when Justine Greening was transport secretary. Both she and her successor, Mr McLoughlin, had defended the process in the light of Sir Richard’s challenge, with Mr McLoughlin telling a Commons select committee he was happy with the way the bidding had been conducted.
Concerns were raised about the knock-on effect on other lines, and there were fears over what will happen when the East Coast main line to Edinburgh is brought back into the private sector.
Edinburgh North and Leith Labour MP Mark Lazorowicz asked “how anybody could trust” a private franchise bidding process for the East Coast main line.