Posted 26th February 2013 | 5 Comments

DfT lashed by MPs' West Coast report

THE COLLAPSE of the West Coast franchise last year was caused by a litter of 'basic errors', according to a new, sharply critical report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

FirstGroup were named as the winners in August, but the Department for Transport's calculations of risk -- and the amount which should be provided as a financial buffer by First -- were successfully challenged by runner-up Virgin Trains, which started formal High Court action.

The DfT defended its position for a while, but newly-appointed transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin withdrew the award and cancelled the competition on 3 October.

The Public Accounts Committee has reaffirmed that the collapse will cost taxpayers at least £50 million, most of which is a refund of the costs incurred by the four bidders.

Committee chairman Margaret Hodge said: "The franchising process was littered with basic errors. The department yet again failed to learn from previous disasters, like the Metronet contract. It failed to heed advice from its lawyers. It failed to respond appropriately to early warning signs that things were going wrong.

"Senior management did not have proper oversight of the project. Cuts in staffing and in consultancy budgets contributed to a lack of key skills.

"The project suffered from a lack of leadership. There was no single person responsible from beginning to end and, therefore, no one who had to live with the consequences of bad policy decisions.

"For three months, there was no single person in charge at all. Not only that, there was no senior civil servant in the team responsible for the work, despite the critical importance of this multi-billion pound franchise."

The DfT has already been criticised by the Laidlaw inquiry, which was commissioned from Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw..

A DfT spokesman said: "The independent Laidlaw inquiry published in December identified the unique and exceptional circumstances which led to failures in the West Coast franchising programme and crucially what steps the department should take to prevent this from happening again.

"The department has accepted all the recommendations and has taken immediate steps by bringing together all rail activity under a single director general and recruiting a senior director to lead the franchising programme, as well as improving internal governance and strengthening oversight and accountability.

"Not only will these reinforce the franchising process but will also protect rail infrastructure projects such as HS2 and electrification."

Virgin has now been given an interim management contract which can only run until November 2014, but the operator is currently negotiating with the DfT over the possibility of converting the present contract, which gives Virgin a flat 1 per cent of revenue, into a more conventional – although very short – franchise.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Melvyn Windebank, Canvey Island, Essex

    Tim, Devon so you are prepared to pay someone to take you somewhere only to find there last journey home is a 6pm? Well that's how provitised buses operate in large parts of the country!

    While renationalisation is not the answer a central board akin to BR but independent of DFT with experienced railway staff is what is needed to issue rail contracts or even concessions along the lines of London Overground, while a return of Inter City as a joined up franchise even though parts may be operated by different companies is worth consideration?

    In London TFL and thus The Mayor needs control over most services within London while an adjunct to TFL board with representatives from counties around London could contro lines that go outside Greater London.

    Simply to carry on with franchises is not a credible option as the system is broken and has not really delivered what was expected while ROSCOs have proved useless at renewing train fleets like private bus companies buy new buses and should be abolished!

    The new alliance format might provide a solution in some areas with rolling stock added on providing a way of dealing with changes to train operators can be found.

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    And there are some readers who want the Railways 're-nationalised' and run by this lot !!!!

  • Tim, Devon

    Time to do away with the franchising system altogether. Implement an open-access system across the whole network. Any operator can operate any trains they want wherever they want. They can pay Network Rail for the costs of maintaining the network and the regulator will decide which companies offer the best proposals where demand exceeds capacity. Uneconomical subsidised lines will be put to tender for the lowest bidder to run.

  • Leslie burge, leicester

    How can the Dft run a Franchise program with nobody in charge. I am sick to death of nobody taking responsibility for projects. It's an absolute disgrace that the taxpayer should be asked to foot the bill for this fiasco.And why have no heads rolled.Somebody at the top of Dft should be sacked because they are obviously not doing their job otherwise they would have ensured somebody was responsible for decision making as is done in the private sector.And we don't want to hear the tired old phrase" Lessons will be learned".

  • Garth, Chippenham

    The question now should surely be why the top manager at the DfT, carrying the ultimate responsibility, should not be fired. If this mess had happened in industry, there would be no doubt this would have happened. The fact that this is a civil servant should make no difference.