Yesterday I had the opportunity to question Richard Branson and Tim O'Toole, Chief Executive of First Group, over the much disputed awarding of the West Coast Main Line franchise to FirstGroup, taking it away from Branson's Virgin Group.
As a regular user of the West Coast Mainline I would like to see an open fair and fair system. I have long argued that past performance should be taken into account when deciding whether a contract is awarded, and that proper independent scrutiny should be made before a contract is awarded. I hope that the Government will change the rules to make the awarding of contracts more transparent and less dependent on who offers the most money.
Given that Branson has claimed the civil servants in charge of the process "got their maths wrong" I asked him how could we have a franchise system that would be open and fair based on past performance?
Branson replied that the system must “Incorporate good ideas which are currently penalised against”, suggesting the current bidding process is not well-rounded enough, and that “financial deliverability is critical and when a set of bids are in they should be evaluated across the board regardless”.
One of Branson's other claims was that the Virgin bid was much more deliverable and that First would struggle to deliver on the package they had promised in their bid. With this in mind, I asked First Chief Exec Tim O’Toole if he foresaw a circumstance where First would be forced to hand the keys to the franchise back to the Government before the end of the contract.
O’Toole replied that “I don’t see any chance of us handing the keys back before the end of the franchise. It would destroy our ability to deliver as a rail company in the UK.”
Here is a link to the proceedings from the BBC's Parliament program. The questioning is 7 minutes in.
Transport Select Committee