15 Oct 2012

Government rail vision remains impaired, as Branson wins again

In theory, the west coast main line could now have three different operators in the coming years, under Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s temporary fix for the government’s rail fiasco.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Rail will continue to run things for nine months, then there will be an interim franchise award, and then a full one. So much for the stability of one franchisee running the railways for 14 years – the key innovation that this government brought to its running of the railways.

As the transport secretary said today: “I believe Virgin remaining as operator for a short period of time is the best way to do this, and my officials and I will be working flat out to make this happen.”

What now of Virgin’s promises to extend direct services to Blackpool and Shrewsbury, and more Pendolino trains etc? All of these were promises made for the full 14-year franchise, not a nine-month emergency pre-interim franchise.

And when the new franchise is finally awarded, presumably it will only be for a decade or so. The timing was always designed not to cross over with the launch in 2026 of HS2, which will have a huge impact on west coast numbers.

That this is the solution only goes to show what a profound mess the DfT procurement system was in. The Independent had some interesting, if predictable, information about the impact of civil service cuts on precisely the department responsible for awarding this disastrous franchise.

Thirty or so staff, including senior civil servants in rail procurement, lost their jobs in the recent Whitehall cuts. No outside auditor was brought in to check the Dft’s dodgy spreadsheet (that I reported on last week). That is the background to the mix-up over inflation that required the franchise award to be cancelled.

From the outside, it seems a little self-defeating to have de-skilled and denuded one of the only departments meant to be raising tens of billions of pounds right now. The immediate cost is probably £100m. The ongoing cost could be much higher, as a wave of franchise awards remains paused.

For train travellers there is at least the promise of a stable network over Christmas. But the government’s vision for rail remains, for now, severely impaired.

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9 reader comments

  1. Andrew Dundas says:

    Appalling though these managerial failings are, we should get some perspective on this ‘train crash’. The late 1990s gave us a FAR WORSE inheritance of incompetence from a Conservative government.
    Then, the cuts to railway maintenance resulted in cracked rails on almost every line. So that trains fell off their rails and lives were lost. Trains ran through signals and the huge smash cost more lives and blighted the journeys of thousands of commuters.
    Billions of cash somehow HAD to be found to repair our vital railways. Railtrack plc – the conservatives brainstorm child – sagged into administration and had to be taken back into public ownership so that our railways could be saved from total collapse.
    It was all of a piece. Hospitals that had long and lengthening waiting lists. People died waiting. Schools where the ceilings leaked when it rained. High and rising illiteracy and soldiers without ammunition. It was ‘one fine mess’ after another!
    AS ever, it’s the same old story. Bumbling & incompetence driven by ideology.

    1. Philip says:
  2. Philip Edwards says:


    It is still as funny as hell.

    That Brave New World from 1980 onwards……of “risk taking entrepreneurs”……of “enlightened self interest”……..of mutual societies converted to “risk taking banks”……of profiteering privatised essential services…….of deindustrialisation…….of the West living off the backs of cheap Eastern labour……..of an outright ultra right capitalist society…….of increasing numbers of billionaires and millionaires…….of increasing poverty and unemployment……..of global economic collapse…….doesn’t work does it?

    Mind you, there were plenty who warned it wouldn’t.

    So what next, at least until the next organised looting?

  3. Robert Taggart says:

    The Rail Passenger Services Franchising system be a ‘Whitehall farce’ !
    But, it be the way of things – so we must hope they make it work.
    Question. Should there be fewer / larger / longer franchises ? Perhaps…
    1. Scottish Regional (Scotrail) – as now.
    2. Welsh Regional (ATW) – as now.
    3. English Northern Regional – as now + Trans Pennine Express.
    4. English Central Regional.
    5. English Southern Regional.
    6. LASER ! – London and South Eastern Regional.
    7. InterCity East Coast Main Line.
    8. InterCity Midland Main Line.
    9. InterCity West coast Main Line.
    10. InterCity Great Western Main Line.
    11. InterCity Cross Country.
    To be franchised out for ten years each ?

  4. Yorkshire Lass says:

    After Gideon’s behaviour today (Friday) I don’t rate Virgin’s chances.

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