The shambles that is passenger rail franchising has taken a step forwards (or maybe backwards, depending on your stance on the subject) with the announcement that the DfT is talking to incumbent operator Virgin Rail Group (VRG) to continue operating InterCity West Coast (ICWC) for a period described as “between nine and 13 months” from the original expiry date in December next.
No repaint necessary ... yet
That VRG would have to continue was really not in doubt: when the DfT binned the process which would have seen ICWC go to First Group, there was insufficient time for either another private sector operator, or Government-run Directly Operated Railways (DOR) to take over. The timescale for safety case, transferring rolling stock and staff is reckoned to be around 120 days.
But those who have been following this process may have noticed that it is the intention of the DfT to move to some kind of “interim franchise” for a short term after VRG’s agreed extension. This would not be a replacement franchise with the kind of timescale that First bid for – it would be for another short period while the franchising process – in whatever form it then takes – was re-run. Again.
At this point, one might think that the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) might have stepped in and objected to “hardworking ordinary taxpayers”, in whose name they claim to operate, having to underwrite not just one, but two more rounds of bidding for ICWC, but such a thought would be misplaced. The TPA is interested in this affair only as a way to kick the Government over HS2, as I noted earlier.
Because two rounds of bidding is what there will have to be: one for the “interim franchise”, which admittedly will not be on the same scale as the full bid, for which taxpayers had to stump up the estimated £40 million to reimburse bidders when the plug was pulled, and another for the re-run of the 14 year contract to run what is arguably the UK’s best trainset.
Why should this be? EU competition rules are being quoted, but how these can be invoked when the Government’s franchising process itself is in question is dubious. More like the EU is being rolled out to take the flak, while the DfT figures out whether to try again with the process that just failed, to re-work the process to make it more robust, or not to bother and move to a concession system.
So don’t believe any attempt to deflect the blame. If VRG are going to continue, then let them do so until the Government has sorted itself out and is ready to take a longer term decision on whichever basis is decided. The idea of an “interim franchise” to add to the shambles of the failed bid is something we don’t need, and the sooner it is shown the door, the better.
And no surprise to see the TPA isn’t interested in taxpayers. I told you so.