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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Passengers must not suffer due to West Coast Mainline shambles - watchdog

A passenger watchdog says it is critical that travellers do not suffer as a result of the West Coast Main Line contract shambles.

Virgin train photo
A Virgin train

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin this week scrapped plans to hand over the London-Glasgow route which passes through Cumbria to FirstGroup because of mistakes made by his department during tendering.

He must now ask current operator Virgin Trains to carry on, or get the state-owned company Directly Operated Railways to run trains, while the franchising process starts again from scratch.

TravelWatch North West (TWNW), which represents the interests of train passengers in Cumbria, says it has been “deeply worried” by the developments.

Chairman Chris Dale said: “When FirstGroup won the bid we stressed the importance of retaining and indeed improving existing passenger benefits against any scenario of looking for cost savings to meet the high premium payments promised to the Government.

“We are deeply worried that against this background it has now been revealed that the Department for Transport got its sums wrong.

“Aside from the colossal waste of taxpayers’ money, this decision has implications for the whole franchising process including franchise renewals and investment plans that are imminent in the north west.”

Mr Dale supports the stance of Virgin continuing to run the service until the new contract is awarded.

He added: “It is crucially important that passengers do not suffer from this shambles with services continuing to run normally, especially in the run-up to Christmas, and that any handover to an interim operator is undertaken seamlessly.

“Indeed, from a passengers’ viewpoint, it would probably be simplest for Virgin to carry on until the process is finalised.”

Cumbria County Council has already said it will be seeking clarity from the Government on its immediate and long-term intentions for services on the line.

Tim Knowles, the councillor responsible for transport, has called for an early announcement on what will happen after Virgin’s current franchise ends.

It is understood that the transport minister held talks on Wednesday night with Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Rail Group, over a temporary extension to Virgin’s franchise.

An all-party West Coast Mainline Parliamentary group, chaired by Carlisle MP John Stevenson, will discuss the franchise on October 16. A senior minister and a representative of Virgin have been invited to attend.

Three Department for Transport (DfT) officials have been suspended while Mr McLoughlin has ordered two inquiries into what went wrong and put bidding for three other franchises on hold.

The DfT is unable to say when it will decide what happens after December 9 when the current franchise is due to end.

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