West Coast Rail Franchise – more competitions announced

You might almost feel sorry for the UK government’s new Transport Minister Patrick McLouglin, who walked into the job to find the West Coast Rail franchising mess just a few weeks ago.

His announcement earlier this week that Virgin had been awarded and extension of between 9 and 13 months was not unexpected. Really, there wasn’t much else they could do. What was perhaps more unexpected was the decision to let a fairly short-term franchise, for just 2 to 3 years, after this extension period.

But the logic seems to be that the analysis and reviews currently going on may lead to some fundamental changes in the whole franchise strategy and approach. In that case, the Government would not wish to be locked into a long term (10 years or more) contract on such a key line if the long term strategy changes.

However, there are obvious issues with all this. First Group – or possibly the Trade Unions – might challenge the Virgin extension decision. As the Guardian reports:

Patrick Twist, of the legal firm Pinsent Masons, said: "It is not obvious that the short term nine-13 month contract, which is now being proposed to be entered with Virgin, should not be open to competition under procurement law."

The two year extension might then be deemed to favour the incumbent too strongly, leading to more potential legal challenge.

Then, if the reviews end up recommending something not too different to the current process, the Department will then have to run two major procurement processes in fairly quick succession, with implications for costs on both buy and sell side.

But as I say, I can’t frankly come up with anything better in terms of what I would have done, so in that situation it doesn’t seem fair to be too critical.

There’s also no great sense of any additional clarity on exactly what happened. I’ve followed various media reports without any greater clarity on what happened. The idea that there was some sort of anti-Branson conspiracy seems to have been squashed, so, as we’ve said before, the two most likely theories (arithmetic error, or a change on the assumptions around future events), are quite different in terms of allocating blame and indeed future direction.

We’ll let you know when anything interesting happens...

(And just to note that the national press are now catching up with what we said some time ago, about the loss of key staff from DfT and the cuts in consulting spend perhaps having something to do with this.)

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