MP writes to minister over rail row

A Commons Select Committee chairman has written to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin over the West Coast rail line franchise fiasco.

Mr McLoughlin was forced last week to scrap the bidding competition for the London to Scotland line due to Department for Transport (DfT) errors in the bidding process.

The department had awarded a new 13-year West Coast franchise not to incumbent company Virgin Trains but to rival transport company FirstGroup. Mr McLoughlin laid the blame for the problems "fairly and squarely" with the department and three DfT officials have been suspended.

On Monday, House of Commons Transport Committee chairman Louise Ellman MP said she had written to Mr McLoughlin raising a number of questions about the cancellation of the competition. Mr McLoughlin is due to appear before the committee on October 31.

Mrs Ellman said: "The Department for Transport has many serious questions to answer about what went wrong with the West Coast Main Line franchise competition and the wider ramifications for the other complex contractual negotiations it is involved in, such as the Thameslink rolling stock procurement. I have written to the Secretary of State to find out more about the reviews he has ordered, the staff who have been suspended and the reporting lines to ministers ahead of the hearing we will hold on October 31."

The DfT decision on the West Coast came when Justine Greening was Transport Secretary. After the award she defended the decision, as did Mr McLoughlin when he took over the transport brief from her last month. Mr McLoughlin also backed the decision when he appeared before Mrs Ellman's committee last month.

Virgin has run the West Coast line since 1997, more than doubling annual passenger numbers and introducing the high-speed tilting Pendolino trains. A shocked Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson, called the franchise bidding process "flawed" and "insane" when the decision was made to award the new franchise to FirstGroup, which had been due to take over the line from December 9.

Sir Richard complained directly to Prime Minister David Cameron and also instigated a legal challenge to the franchise ruling.

It was in the course of preparing the Government's case against the court challenge that problems with the way the bids were handled came to light. The Government has now dropped its opposition to Virgin's court action.

The Government now has to decide whether to allow Virgin to carry on operating the line after the December 9 date or to run it under the DfT as is the case at the moment with the other main London to Scotland line - East Coast.