Tracks and travails

Philip HuntPhil Hunt on yet another example of how not to run a railway franchise

The full scale of the West Coast rail franchise shambles has become this week as the Transport Secretary admitted to a catalogue of errors that includes a lack of transparency in the bidding process and inconsistencies in the treatment of bidders; as well as mistakes in calculating the amount of risk capital bidders were asked to provide against defaulting on the franchise.

Drastic cuts to Department for Transport’s budget have seriously reduced expertise and capacity, throwing the whole franchise system into the melting pot. Future investment in our railways has been jeopardised and the cost to the taxpayer will run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

It would be bad enough if the West Coast Main Line was the only problem. Instead it is systematic of a creaking system overseen by a demoralised government department for which Ministers must take the blame.

The West Midlands has been particularly badly hit, with London Midland having cancelled more than 400 trains in three weeks because of a driver shortage. Further cancellations are promised, adding yet more misery to long suffering railway users. Disgracefully, the shortfall in qualified drivers will not be addressed until mid-December.

Thousands of rail passengers have been badly affected on lines from Birmingham to Lichfield, Redditch, Northampton and Wolverhampton. Many businesses have also been hit. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce has said that time-sensitive businesses, such as shops, will suffer if their staff are unable to get to work on time. Shoppers meanwhile may be put off travelling into Birmingham and other local centres.

The West Midlands Campaign for Better Transport has called for London Midland to be stripped of its franchise in the wake of the latest cancellations. It has accused the railway company of presiding over a shambles in recent weeks. But this is also a matter for the government and I will be asking them what they intend to do at Lords question time today.

The franchise agreement with the company calls for the train operator to be skilled and experienced, in order to deliver the best railway service from the resources available to it. The reality is rather different – as thousands of disappointed passengers can testify.

One would have hoped that Ministers would have by now made clear to the company that their franchise is in jeopardy. Anything less and the public will conclude that the government is simply not prepared to stand up for the public interest.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour's Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 31st October 2012


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