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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