Posted 8th October 2012 | No Comments

Transport secretary faces West Coast grilling

THE TRANSPORT SECRETARY Patrick McLoughlin is coming under increasing pressure from MPs over the West Coast crisis, even before Parliament returns from its conference recess next Monday. He has been called to give evidence to the Commons Transport Committee at the end of this month, and they are unlikely to pull any punches.

In a letter to Mr McLoughlin, published today, the Committee's chair Louise Ellman has told him that she wants to see the results of the first of two inquiries which have been set up, following the cancellation of the franchise award last week.

The first of these inquiries is an 'urgent independent examination' of the West Coast problems, conducted by independent advisers and overseen by Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw and former PricewaterhouseCoopers strategy chairman Ed Smith, who are both DfT non-executive directors. Their initial report is expected by the end of the month.

A second inquiry into the wider issues surrounding franchise awards will be run by Eurostar chairman Richard Brown, and this should make its report by the end of the year.

The DfT has already admitted that flawed calculations of risk were the main problem, although it had maintained that its processes were 'robust' for six weeks after the award of the West Coast contract to FirstGroup was announced on 15 August.

Virgin Trains had started High Court proceedings because it was convinced that the Government had made a mistake. Now VT may continue operating West Coast intercity services after 8 December, although if so it will probably be under the terms of a fixed management contract rather than a conventional franchise.

In her letter, Mrs Ellman says: "I would be grateful if you could confirm that the report of the Laidlaw-Smith review will be publicly available before your appearance before the Committee on 31 October.

"There have been reports that three DfT staff have been suspended as a result of the cancellation of the competition. Could you confirm this, say at what grade the suspended staff are employed, confirm their tasks and role with respect to the WCML franchise and confirm what reporting arrangements operated between them and the relevant ministers?"

One of the suspended staff has issued a public statement in which she has accused the DfT of describing her responsibilities inaccurately, and Mr McLoughlin can expect some insistent questioning from the MPs on the Committee about this aspect of the crisis as well.

Meanwhile, talks are understood to be continuing between the DfT and Virgin Trains about a possible management contract from 9 December. Work on future franchises, four of which had been due to be re-awarded next year, has been put on hold.