West Coast Main Line tussle continues

Sir Richard Branson has succeeded in halting the decision to hand the contract of the West Coast Main Line to First Group after he complained that his Virgin Trains company had been unfairly treated during the tender process.

Virgin initially won the contract in 1997 but lost out on the opportunity to extend the contract for another 13 years when First Group entered a bid believed to be worth £1bn more.

The company was due to take over the running of the trains between London and Edinburgh – running via Preston – in December. It had promised lower fares, faster trains and better connectivity between Lancashire’s towns and the rest of the UK.

However, Virgin boss Branson said First Group’s claims were unworkable and that the tender process had been flawed. He began to compile a legal case before the Department of Transport confessed that there had been ‘completely unacceptable mistakes’ made when making the decision.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “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.

“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.”

Patrick McLoughlin was not part of the transport department when the decision was taken, only being appointed to his current role last month in the latest cabinet reshuffle.

Sir Richard Branson said of the decision: “I am pleased to say that the DfT has looked at all of the facts and found significant flaws in the way its officials handled the process. They have basically acknowledged that what we had been saying is correct.”

First Group responded with a statement, which read: “We are extremely disappointed to learn this news and await the outcome of the DfT's inquiries. The DfT has made it clear to us that we are in no way at fault, having followed the due process correctly. We submitted a strong bid, in good faith and in strict accordance with the DfT's terms.”