Virgin deal to be announced

Virgin employs more than 400 people at Preston station
Virgin employs more than 400 people at Preston station
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A deal to allow Sir Richard Branson’s train company, Virgin Rail, to temporarily carry on running trains on the West Coast Main Line is expected to be announced by the Government on Thursday.

It is believed that Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin may also publish the independent report he commissioned into the scrapped West Coast franchise bidding process.

Virgin has run the line, which takes passengers from London to Scotland, since 1997.

But in August, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced that a new 13-year West Coast franchise had been awarded not to Virgin but to rival transport company FirstGroup.

It was only after Sir Richard, who had branded the bidding process “insane”, had mounted a legal challenge to the decision that Mr McLoughlin scrapped the bidding process, saying there had been mistakes by the DfT.

Three DfT officials were suspended and negotiations were started with a view to getting Virgin to run the line for between nine and 13 months before a short interim franchise was offered followed by a longer one later.

The details, and length, of the for-now deal, are expected to be announced tomorrow.

When he pulled the plug on the West Coast franchise bidding, Mr McLoughlin appointed businessman Sam Laidlaw to produce an independent report into the fiasco.

After producing damning initial findings, which listed failings by the DfT, Mr Laidlaw presented his full report to the department last week.

But with one of the suspended department officials, Kate Mingay, mounting a legal challenge to her suspension, Mr McLoughlin announced that he was delaying the Laidlaw report publication until this week.

Mr Laidlaw had been due to appear before the House of Commons Transport Committee this week, but MPs will now hear his evidence on December 18.

The committee’s chairman, Louise Ellman, criticised the DfT over the delay.

FirstGroup had been due to take over the West Coast line on December 9.

Following the franchise collapse, the RMT transport union had been pressing for the DfT to oversee the running of the West Coast line in the public sector, as is the case, for now, with the East Coast line.

On Wednesday, RMT general secretary Bob Crow said there had been a “reckless high-wire act that has taken the negotiations between Virgin and the DfT right to the very brink”.

He went on: “Because of the shocking ineptitude right at the top of this rotten Government, Sir Richard Branson has muscled his way into a monopoly provider position and him and his Virgin Trains shareholders will be laughing all the way to the bank.

“The case for renationalisation of Britain’s railways is now overwhelming.”