Britain ditches rail franchise agreement

Britain ditches rail franchise agreement

LONDON - Reuters
Britain ditches rail franchise agreement

Citing serious mistakes in the bidding process, Britian scraps a rail deal. REUTERS photo

Britain scrapped a 6 billion pound ($9.7 billion) deal yesterday to award one of the country’s biggest railway franchises to FirstGroup Plc, blaming government officials for serious mistakes in the bidding process.

In an embarrassing U-turn, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that “completely unacceptable” flaws had been found in the way rival bids to run the West Coast Main Line were calculated and the process would have to begin again.

Three more franchise competitions have been put on hold, raising questions about the government’s handling of the privatized railways.

FirstGroup won the 13-year deal to operate the London-to-Scotland line in August with a bid of about 6 billion pounds, but the decision was challenged by Virgin Trains, a joint venture between Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and FirstGroup rival Stagecoach.

Branson had called for a review because he believed that FirstGroup’s numbers did not stack up and Virgin launched legal proceedings against the government in August in an attempt to prevent the contract from going ahead.

“I have had to cancel the competition for the running of the West Coast franchise because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process,” McLoughlin said in a statement.

“A detailed examination by my officials into what happened has revealed these flaws and means it is no longer possible to award a new franchise on the basis of the competition that was held.”

He ordered two inquiries into the mistakes and said that staff may be suspended.

Labor transport spokeswoman Maria Eagle said: “The West Coast rail franchise fiasco has yet again exposed the shambolic incompetence of this Tory-led government.”

The move means that the Department for Transport (DfT) will no longer be awarding a franchise contract to run the West Coast service when the current contract expires on Dec. 9, and the bidding process will need to be re-run.

Shares in FTSE 250-listed FirstGroup plunged 15 percent when the market opened yesterday.

The company said in a statement that it was “extremely disappointed” with the government move and that it had only been told of the issue late on Sept. 2.