West Coast rail delay: Branson could be called before MPs

Sep 4, 2012

Branson continues to argue that Virgin should keep the franchise, throwing gov’t timetable off course

THE decision to postpone the agreement to award the West Coast main line rail franchise to FirstGroup is only the first hurdle for Richard Branson's Virgin Rail Group to clear in the path to reclaiming the right to run the network.

But how far has Branson's effort to "unravel this sorry process" actually got?

He claims FirstGroup's bid to operate the franchise until 2026 is a risk to taxpayers since FirstGroup's superior £5.5
billion bid is only economically feasible if the rival firm makes "dramatic cuts to customer quality" and introduces "considerable fare rises".

Transport minister Theresa Villiers says the government will defend Branson's legal challenge "robustly" and the delay is merely procedural. But since the FirstGroup contract has not been signed, "consequently the competition remains live," says Villiers.

As the Daily Mail reports, Villiers has told MPs the FirstGroup bid offers "significant improvements" for passengers. The operator has promised 11 new high speed trains that will run between Glasgow and Birmingham, as well as improved food and wifi.

Taxpayers, she says, have invested £9bn in the network over the past decade. Since it is a profitable franchise for the current operator, the government is rightly seeking to get a substantial return for passengers and taxpayers.

The Independent says don't be fooled by Branson's pleas. Virgin Rail Group has done extremely well from the West Coast main line, booking profits last year of £33,000 per employee while depending heavily on state money - and still receiving a large number of passenger complaints.

Since the government's timetable has almost certainly been thrown off course, says The Guardian, Branson may be asked to appear before MPs to make his case that the franchise award is flawed. A decision on inviting Virgin representatives to Parliament is expected today.

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