Sir Richard Branson today hailed the Government’s decision to scrap its contract with rival rail operator FirstGroup for the West Coast Main Line franchise – claiming all his concerns about the process had been vindicated.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin today said the competition to run trains on the West Coast Main Line between London and Scotland has been cancelled following the discovery of ‘significant technical flaws’ in the way the franchise process was conducted.
The announcement could mean a potential delay for Shropshire’s long awaited direct rail link to London – which FirstGroup had pledged to reinstate by 2016. But Virgin Trains have also promised to provide the county with a rail link to the capital – should it be awarded the franchise.
Today its boss Richard Branson welcomed the Government’s decision saying that First Group’s bid had been ‘unrealistic’ from the outset.
In an online blog, he 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.
“We were convinced the process was flawed but despite our best efforts we were met with silence by the Department for Transport.
“We also asked for government to appoint an independent advisor to look at the situation, which was turned down.
“Reluctantly we were forced to seek a judicial review. Tomorrow the DfT were meant to have given their evidence to the court?
He said the announcement was a vindication that he was right all along.
“I am pleased to say that the DfT has looked at all of the facts and found significant flaws in the way its officials handled the process. They have basically acknowledged that what we had been saying is correct.
“The same procedures were not followed and ‘deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes’ were made by the Department. At the
House of Commons Select Committee we called for all franchise competitions to be paused and a thorough, independent review of the process.
“We are grateful that Patrick McLoughlin is now doing this. We also appreciate the DfT 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.”
Following the announcement that FirstGroup had been awarded the West Coast Main Line contract in August more than 170,000 people signed an e-petition calling for the decision to be reconsidered.
However, in a statement today FirstGroup said that until it was notified by the DfT last night, it had no indication there were any problems with the franchise process.
The firm said: "Until this point we had absolutely no indication that there were any issues with the franchise letting process and had received assurances from the DfT that its processes were robust and that it expected to sign the contract with FirstGroup soon.
"We are extremely disappointed to learn this news and await the outcome of the DfT's inquiries.
“The DfT has made it clear to us that we are in no way at fault, having followed the due process correctly.
"We submitted a strong bid, in good faith and in strict accordance with the DfT's terms."
The latest development is yet another stumbling block in Shropshire’s campaign for a direct rail link to the capital.
The county has been without a direct rail link with London since the demise of Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway in 2011.
Since it stopped, MPs and business leaders have been lobbying for a link to be reinstated claiming it is vital for the local economy.
In August, it seemed that the hard work had paid off when the Government announced that FirstGroup has won the 13 year contact to run the West Coast Main Line.
The rail operator immediately pledged to reinstate a direct link from Shrewsbury and Telford to the capital by 2016.
The new deal was to begin this December and run initially until March 2026.
FirstGroup vowed to provide thousands of extra seats for passengers on the routes, and also promised to cut the cost of ‘Standard Anytime’ fares by an average 15 per cent in the next two years.
Speaking at the time, rail minister Theresa Villiers said: “This new franchise will deliver big improvements for passengers, with more seats and plans for more services.
“Targets to meet on passenger satisfaction will be introduced for the first time in an InterCity rail franchise and passengers will also benefit from smart ticketing and from investment in stations.”
Other pledges by FirstGroup for the franchise included spending £22 million on station improvements, bringing in smart ticketing technology and reducing journey times between London and Glasgow.
Speaking at the time, Keith Barrow, leader of Shropshire Council, who campaigned for the restoration of the link, said he was delighted that the hard work of local MPs, business leaders and councillors had paid off.
It now remains to be seen what will happen to that hard work as the saga of the West Coast Main Line franchise continues.