Ministers have "failed to properly explain" why Exeter rail competition was abandoned
MINISTERS have failed to properly explain why a major competition to run rail services to and from Exeter was ditched according to one of the bidders.
Martin Griffiths, the incoming boss of Stagecoach - one of four companies shortlisted for the now cancelled 15-year Great Western franchise - has told a parliamentary inquiry he will be taking the matter up with the Department for Transport.
The Government is also unable to say how much it will cost the taxpayer for the existing operator First Great Western to continue running services on the network in the wake of the collapsed contest.
It came as Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin faced close questioning by MPs over the scrapping of the tendering process that had been put on hold following the West Coast mainline fiasco.
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But the Cabinet Minister showed no sign of backing away from his refusal to reimburse bidders in the well-advanced franchise competition - FirstGroup; Arriva Trains; National Express; and Stagecoach.
The contest was put on hold after the Government was forced to pull the plug on the controversial West Coast deal, following the discovery of “significant technical flaws” in the way the franchise process had been conducted.
The subsequent cancellation of the Great Western contest will raise concerns that service improvements promised by the lengthy franchise, such as tackling overcrowding and reliability, will not now be realised.
It comes on top of continuing fears about the vulnerability of the mainline to disruption highlighted by the recent bad weather.
This has led to the Institution of Civil Engineers South West (ICE) to call for a major rethink of the region’s ‘struggling’ rail infrastructure, along with studies into extending electrification of lines to the far South West and an alternative inland route for the mainline.
Giving evidence to the Commons Transport Select Committee, which is undertaking an inquiry into rail franchising, Mr Griffiths, the finance director of Stagecoach who will step up to chief executive in May, was asked about the cancellation of the Great Western competition.
He told MPs: “I have had a letter, again as a bidder, which does not really explain to our satisfaction why the contract has been cancelled. That will be something we will be taking up with the Department for Transport.”
Later when questioned by the committee, the Secretary of State said it had been scrapped as a result of “…franchise size remapping and franchise length”.
And explaining why compensation was being paid to the bidders in the West Coast franchise, but not for the Great Western contract, Mr McLoughlin said the processes had reached different stages.
As a result of the contest being shelved, the current operator First Great Western has had its contract extended until October and negotiations will start on a new two-year contract with the company, while plans for the longer term will be set out in the spring.
But on this and another franchise, Clare Moriarty, the DfT’s director general for rail, said: “Those are extensions that are yet to be negotiated and so at the moment we do not know what those costs will be.”