Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson has revealed plans that could mean Virgin Trains bids to run the East Coast Main Line franchise. This comes just weeks after he and his company were asked to continue operating the West Coast Main Line after the contract end date due to a controversial bidding fiasco. It also follows threats during the fiasco that he could pull out of the British rail industry altogether.
Virgin Trains, which is a joint venture between Virgin Group and Stagecoach, has hinted at plans for a bid on the East Coast Main Line when the new contract comes up next year. Branson said this week that it’s very likely Virgin Trains will join the bidding for the Edinburgh-London route, if the process is fair and open – and he’s sure it will be. He hopes that any new process for franchise bids will take the quality of ideas and innovation into account.
Branson also hinted that the company’s bid would be on the large side. He said that they know what has to be done on the East Coast Main Line, which urgently needs investment. They think they have the team to do it and will be delighted to. He promises that passengers will get a better travel experience than now, with the company transforming the experience of public travel. However, the plans are unlikely to include high-speed upgrades, as the government is planning a High Speed 2 network, which will stretch between London and Birmingham.
This is kind of surprising considering how upset Branson was when the Department for Transport (DfT) announced in August that it would be awarding the 13-year West Coast Main Line franchise contract to FirstGroup. The rival bid £5.5 billion to run the route, while Virgin bid £4.8 billion after having run the route for 15 years already. The rail boss criticised the decision as “insane” when it was first announced and warned that it would affect jobs and passenger service.
However, after a Virgin legal challenge and an initial investigation into the bidding process, the DfT cancelled the decision earlier this month due to vital mistakes that had been made during the bidding process. Several civil servants were suspended due to the mistakes, while Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced two independent inquiries into the fiasco.
This week, McLoughlin announced the results of an interim report from Sam Laidlaw, who’s leading one of the inquiries into the fiasco. He said the report was uncomfortable to read due to an accumulation of substantial errors resulting in a flawed process. These errors seem to have been caused by factors that include a weak governance and quality assurance framework, inadequate planning and preparation, and a complex organisational structure. There was a lack of transparency, technical flaws and inconsistencies in how bidders were treated.
He added that it’s clear the inquiry has found several issues that confirm his decision to cancel the franchise contract was needed. Another report into the fiasco is expected to be published at the end of next month and give more firm conclusions.
Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle says that ministers can’t be permitted to push the blame onto officials, which is what the Prime Minister actually said. This isn’t just a faulty process but a faulty government.