Virgin / FirstGroup West Coast Rail Franchise debate gets surreal

After I wrote this post, we got more information about the challenge that Virgin are making to the decision - we'll look at that today and give our view on it tomorrow. At very first sight, there is one aspect that might concern me a bit if I were on the Government side of things...


We featured yesterday some of the intelligent comments we've had from our readers - way above the standard of debate we seem to be seeing in some parts of the mainstream media.

And now we have a public petition,which is apparently approaching the 100,000 signatures trigger when the topic has to be debated in Parliament! Why? How? Who? What on earth do 100,000 people think they know about the full complexity of franchise selection?

Then we have the rent-a-celebrity factor coming into play, something that is becoming a truly dangerous feature of UK public life. As the Independent says:

The Apprentice presenter Lord Sugar, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and pop star Ronan Keating are among those supporting an e-petition to try to force a House of Commons debate on the decision.

Eddie Izzard is another signatory apparently. You know, the expert on rail franchises. Oh sorry, I got confused, he's that comedian who ran lots of marathons, isn't he? And knock me down with a copy of the west coast timetable, I didn’t know that Ronan Keating* was an expert in EU compliant, complex, technical and value focused procurement exercises. Never mind Bill Crothers, let's start a campaign - Ronan for Government Chief Procurement Officer!

And now Mo Farah has jumped on the bandwagon. Much as I admire you, remind me, just how much are you being paid for your participation in the Virgin Media advertising campaign, Mr Farah?

"Farah, Virgin’s newest brand ambassador, urged his 457,000 Twitter followers to jump on the bandwagon and overturn a decision that Sir Richard Branson labelled ‘insane’".

At this point you just have the throw your hands up and say that if procurement decisions are going to be made by celebrities with no relevant experience or knowledge, then we really are doomed. (On the other hand, I don’t mind Oliver expressing views about school food, because he has some expertise). Actually, perhaps Oliver is involved here because he sees a kindred spirit in Branson – a guy somehow loved by the public, with a gift for both publicity and making tons of money.

But what does she think about the West Coast franchise decision?

Make no mistake, if this decision gets overturned, not only will we have a very interesting legal challenge from First Group, we might as well hand over all major public procurement to the mob. But I suspect the politicians know that, hence the admirable fortitude being shown by the Transport Minister, Justine Greening.

Anyway, we wait for the really big intervention, which could still tip the balance one way or the other – what does Katie Price think of the decision? That’s what really matters, after all.

* The man behind such immortal songs as “Everyday I Love You” and leader of a group that had a unique ability to make their covers of songs sound rubbish whether the original was rubbish itself (Love me for a reason) or a decent song  (Baby can I hold you), and who probably caused more pain to lovers of popular music than anyone since the composers of the Birdie Song.

Share on Procurious

Voices (7)

  1. John Diffenthal:

    The legislation allows judicial scrutiny of the process providing the unhappy supplier mounts a challenge during the “Alcatel period”. Since they haven’t taken that route, I assume that Virgin believes that their case is weak, hence their enthusiasm in generating plenty of noise in the court of public opinion.

    1. Final Furlong:

      You make a good point. However, as this was the procurement of a concession contract and so they opted to run a voluntary one (which was very admirable) – and you are quite right – Virgin didn’t launch a legal challenge during the standstill period. Probably why they are now having to launch a different challenge using wider public opinion…

      (Extract from ITT: “The Department intends to run a voluntary standstill period of 10 calendar days.”)

      1. Dan:

        They didn’t get an injunction during the standstill period because they didn’t have any grounds – DoT must have followed the procurement rules properly.

        Virgin are seeking judicial review (which is something completely different) because they are alleging that the DoT didn’t properly judge the risk in awarding the contract to First Group. All that will happen, at best, is that the judge agrees and tells the DoT to reassess it. They will do that, and confirm that First Group is the best tender.

        This is just a face-saving mechanism for Virgin.

  2. On the Sidelines:

    Peter. I wholeheartedly applaud the above the insightful comments from “Life” and David Orr. I commented yesterday that I believe that awarding £14M value of business in a neo monopolistic environment predicated on an purported procurement competition is fatally flawed in terms of commercial logic. My impression is that DfT will attempt to to continue to obfusticate becuase they know damn fine that there will some degree of discovery that will be damaging to them and the adopted process. If that were not the case why would they not have seized the opportunity early on to make the details of process transparant? This is a serious amount of public money being expended on a public service which is critical to thousands of peoples lives and overall business in UK plc. Not permitting proper scrutiny through elected representative is effectively disenfranchising the citizens of this country. That is truly ironic when you think that we elougise our democracy as the paradigm to be pursued throughout the rest of the world.

  3. Dave Orr:

    Peter: Is their some thin ice in places where you are skating in your commentary above?

    Award huge contract in parliamentary recesss and the rush to signature is also in parliamentary recess! Why rush this when there are 14 years to regret afterwards?

    No time for local MPs and their constituents to give feedback. Was that part of the contract award model, given that we know from Beeching (aided by M-way & road builder Minister Marples) that the S Wales branch lines were famously spared by the line “But Prime Minister that line passes through a number of marginal constituencies”.

    I welcome all debate and involvement.

    How do we channel that public interest into Police privatisation with G4S and the casual privatisation consuming Adult Social Care as we blog?

    Check out Cornwall and their latest joint venture wheeze! After all, history is littered with so many successes (Bucks, Suffolk, Liverpool, Somerset etc)

    Didn’t mention South West One once there or that they are in formal dispute with partners Avon & Somerset Police, Somerset County Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council and that in July 2012 contract mediation failed; or that they lost around £6m in 2011 Accounts; or that they are only solvent with a £10m loan gurantee by IBM; or that Police KPIs averaged only 83% in 2011.

  4. life:

    Well, comedy it may be, but dangerous it is not. I don’t think any of these people actually think they’ll be making the decision (!), but it does look like they are getting engaged in the issue, which is great, as more people should be. Whatever the merits of the decision, as discussed previously, maybe some of the procurement team should have been involved for a bit longer also…..

    I’m sure some of the petitioners are partisan too, being at least in some way in the employ of the tanned one, but they’ve still a right to petition and have an opinion, or participate in a PR campaign. Judging from some of the comments in the last few posts on these pages, it could EVEN BE that some of the more informed on the subject here have a few personal axes to grind – and what’s wrong with that?

    I’m not a “all publicity is good publicity” person, but I do think that the more focus is put on these decisions, and the more accountable those responsible are made, the better it is for us all.

    I’m not close enough to know what went on in this, but from informed comment here it does look like a hasty procurement given the import, and if that is the case one of the reasons for it is likely to be that the team involved weren’t given enough resources or time to do the job. Because, despite there being a clear business case to do so, procurement isn’t seen as being important enough to invest in. And, dare I say it, perhaps procurement is not even fully understood by some who find themselves responsible for it. So yes, it is being nakedly stage managed, but I say bring it on, and if there are lessons to be learned let’s have a public debate about it, celebreties and all. After all, we’re not talking about building hospitals here, and the trains will keep running as well as ever 🙂

Discuss this:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.