McLoughlin faces rail fiasco quiz

Hillingdon Times: Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin laid the blame 'fairly and squarely' on Department for Transport officials Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin laid the blame 'fairly and squarely' on Department for Transport officials

A Government minister and his department boss will face a grilling from MPs over the West Coast rail franchise fiasco.

Members of the House of Commons Transport Committee will be armed with a damning initial report into what Labour has described as a "shambles" of a bidding process.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and Department for Transport (DfT) permanent secretary Philip Rutnam will have to explain why the DfT went ahead with the West Coast bidding competition knowing the process was flawed.

Mr McLoughlin will also be asked why he told MPs on his first appearance before the committee in September that he was happy with the bidding process only for him to scrap the entire West Coast refranchising process a few weeks later.

The DfT, with Justine Greening as transport secretary, announced in August that it had awarded a new 13-year franchise for the West Coast line not to Sir Richard Branson's rail company Virgin Trains but to rival transport company FirstGroup. But at the beginning of this month, Mr McLoughlin, who took over from Ms Greening in the early autumn Government reshuffle, pulled the plug on the West Coast bidding.

He laid the blame "fairly and squarely" on the DfT officials. Three DfT civil servants have been suspended. The faults with the process were discovered as the DfT prepared to defend a legal challenge to the West Coast decision brought by Sir Richard, who labelled the bidding process "insane".

On Monday this week, Mr McLoughlin published the initial findings of an independent report he set up to look into the West Coast bidding affair. Led by senior business figure Sam Laidlaw, the report said the DfT had been "aware of a lack of transparency" in an aspect of the franchise process but had decided to continue "and to accept the risk of a bidder challenge".

The Laidlaw report also said the companies bidding for the franchise were not provided with adequate information, the DfT did not follow its own guidance, and the evaluation of the financial robustness of the bids was "developed late, in a hurry and without proper planning and preparation".

Mr Laidlaw said the DfT had undergone staff reductions and frequent changes of leadership, and organisational changes and the department's structure "resulted in a lack of clarity around allocation of responsibility" for the bidding competition. He concluded that these factors raised "potentially significant issues about the ability of the DfT effectively to conduct rail franchise competitions".

FirstGroup had been due to take over the West Coast line on December 9. The Government is now in discussions with Virgin about it continuing to run services for up to 14 months until an interim franchise competition is held ahead of a competition for a full franchise.

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