By a Newsnet reporter
Keith Brown, the Scottish Transport minister, has branded the UK Department of Transport (DfT) as “incompetent and shambolic” after the Whitehall department cancelled First Group’s recent winning bid to take over the franchise for the vital West Coast main line.
The deal was scrapped after the DfT admitted there had been serious mistakes in the way the bidding process had been administered. As a result some staff within the Department have been suspended and all rail franchising processes have been put on hold.
In a controversial decision, the DfT announced in August that it had chosen Aberdeen based FirstGroup’s bid over that of rival operator Virgin, who currently run the service. First Group had been due to take over the franchise in December, but the competition will now have to be run again, causing a delay of several months.
Speaking during a debate in Holyrood on Thursday, Mr Brown confirmed that the UK Government had failed to clarify who would be running the rail service after Virgin’s contract expires early in December.
Mr Brown said:
“I have still to see the detail of DfT’s contingency plan, and it is still not clear who will be operating train services in December.
“However, after finally managing to speak to the UK rail minister, I have his assurance that services will run to timetable, using the same trains and staff, and that tickets and bookings will be valid.
“DfT Ministers stated yesterday that our administrations have ‘common interest’ in making sure there is no break in the service for passengers after 9 December.
“While I can understand that, in light of the mishandling of the franchise many people may be reluctant to give too much weight to DfT assurances.
“And although our powers in regard to rail remain limited, I am determined that I and my officials will monitor these assurances carefully and offer all assistance necessary, to ensure passengers are not disadvantaged.”
Mr Brown also expressed his disquiet that the Scottish Government had not been informed by the UK Government when it became clear that flaws in the bidding process would cause the winning bid to be cancelled.
Mr Brown added:
“Neither Scottish Ministers nor officials were made aware of yesterday’s decision in advance of the announcement.
“The UK Government offered no discussion or advance notice on a decision which directly affects those travelling to and from Scotland, and on services which are of crucial importance to the economies of our major cities.”
The UK Government is legally obliged to inform Holyrood of any measures or UK Government decisions which have a direct effect on transport in Scotland, however Scottish ministers complain that they only became aware that the running of one of Scotland’s most important railways was in doubt when it was reported in the news media.
The “fundamental flaws”, which the DfT admitted had brought the bidding process to a halt, were allegedly basic errors in accountancy which were not picked up by senior staff or ministers – including former UK Transport Secretary Justine Greening, herself an accountant. The fiasco has raised questions about the lack of proper oversight and control in the DfT of the bidding and franchising process, and once again raises the question of whether the railway network should be renationalised.
The bid failure has forced the UK Government to announce two reviews of the tendering and franchise process.
Mr Brown continued:
“Without pre-empting the review I don’t think it credible to lay all the blame on civil servants.
“I urge the Secretary of State for Transport to take the opportunity of the review to address wider questions. It would be a missed opportunity to narrow the reviews simply down to issues of technical process and not address wider issues too. Rather than another patch and mend, a different model is required.
“The current legislation, primarily the Railways Act 1993, envisaged a railway that was specified and funded in the public interest, but which was provided by the private sector.
“The result is a fragmented and inefficient model. We are doing all that we can in our powers to make this model work as best it can. But in 2012 the current model is not fit for purpose and I have repeatedly raised concerns with the UK Government on this matter.”
Train users groups point out that rail travel in the UK is significantly more expensive than rail travel in other European countries, and the savings promised by the Conservative government of the 1990s when the network was privatised have not been passed on to railway users. Recent polls show 70% now support full renationalisation.