U-turn as major rail line deal is axed

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Virgin train at Lime Street station © kpmarek/Flickr

The Government has made a U-turn on its decision to award the west coast train operation, including the Liverpool to London link, to transport company FirstGroup.

The surprise announcement leaves Virgin Trains operating the service for the time being, after it had launched a legal challenge against the original decision which is now to be scrapped.

The recently-appointed Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, said in a statement released early on Wednesday morning that the Government was forced to “cancel the competition for the running of the West Coast franchise because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process”.

He added: “A detailed examination by my officials into what happened has revealed these flaws, and means it is no longer acceptable to award a new franchise on the basis of the competition that was held.

“West Coast passengers can rest assured that while we seek urgently to resolve the future arrangements the trains that run now will continue to run with the same drivers, the same staff and timetables as planned.”

Three civil servants have been suspended while two independent reviews are carried out to find out the causes of the mistakes in the bidding process.

The West Coast Mainline is the busiest mixed-traffic railway route in Britain, serving over 31 million people every year.

Mr McLoughlin also confirmed that all costs would be “reimbursed in full” to bidders for the service, including Virgin Trains, which could cost the taxpayers as much as £40m.

The transport boss said: “I spoke to Sir Richard Branson last night, and Tim O’Toole and also Sir Brian Souter, and said that what we found was deeply regrettable and I certainly apologised. There are lessons that need to be learned from this.”

Writing in his blog, Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Trains group, said: “From the moment we found out that FirstGroup had been made the preferred bidder with a completely unrealistic bid, we questioned the way the offers had been assessed, and asked Government to review and explain how it came to its decision.”

Virgin Trains launched an epetition in August to keep their west coast service contract which reached over their target of 100,000 signatures.

FirstGroup won the original bid © MattBuck4950 /Creative Commons /Flickr

Sir Richard continued: “We appreciate the DfT (Department for Transport) publicly acknowledging these errors, and are hopeful they will now accept that Virgin Trains should carry on running the West Coast Main Line and ensure that passengers continue receiving our team’s award-winning service.”

The current bids for three other rail network, Thameslink, Great Western and Essex Thamesside are to be ‘paused’ amid the Government’s investigations.

FirstGroup declared it had “no indication” of any problems with the franchising process and said: “We are extremely disappointed to learn this news, and await the outcome of the DfT’s inquiries.”

Additional reporting by Joshua Killner

About Sam McDonnell, JMU Journalism