What next for our 'essential' rail link?
THE future of the region's main rail link to London was mired in uncertainty today after ministers abandoned plans to strip Virgin Trains of the £7 billion franchise.
Virgin rival FirstGroup will not take over the West Coast Mainline – and with it stations in Stoke and Stafford – on December 9 after the Department for Transport (DfT) admitted 'completely unacceptable mistakes' in the bidding process.
Unions last night called for the line to be renationalised but the Government is poised to ask Virgin to continue operating the service, pending legal checks, until the franchise process can be started from scratch.
Unlikely alternatives include emergency renationalising or suspending the service wholesale.
It means thousands of North Staffordshire commuters will not benefit from the improvements promised by FirstGroup but will continue to have access to a service they are broadly satisfied with.
Tristram Hunt, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said: "This has been a massive mistake by departmental officials which is now costing taxpayers tens of millions.
"It should not affect the service in the near-future but we now have no long-term strategy.
"Everybody other than the Department for Transport was innately sceptical about whether FirstGroup could achieve the improvements in services whilst also handing returns back to the Treasury. My sense is that they will extend Virgin's contract which puts them in the driving seat. I don't think there will be an emergency nationalisation. The taxpayer obviously wants as good a return as possible but I've always found service provision to be pretty good."
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, left, said he was 'very angry' about the fiasco and that the 'fault of this lies wholly and squarely with the DfT'.
FirstGroup won the 13-year franchise after bidding £700 million more than Virgin. It pledged to add 12,000 seats, 11 extra trains, introduce free wi-fi, cut 'anytime' fares and reduce the percentage of seats used for first class tickets.
But Virgin launched a legal challenge, insisting the figures did not add up.
Now the Government says senior civil servants, three of whom have been suspended over the affair, muddled their sums with mistakes in calculating inflation, passenger numbers and the amount FirstGroup would have to pay in guarantees.
Taxpayers face a £40 million bill in refunds to rail companies that bid for the contract.
Two urgent reviews have been ordered by the Government with initial findings due to be reported within a month.
The line connects Stoke-on-Trent, Stafford, and Crewe train stations to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Glasgow.
Staffordshire County Council's Tory highways chief Mike Maryon branded the deal's collapse a 'fiasco' and called on the Government to push for service improvements.
He said: "We were promised more routes, more seats, more trains and cheaper fares and this must still be the priority for whoever wins the franchise.
"It plays a key role in connecting Staffordshire with the rest of the UK and it is hugely important, to both residents and businesses, that we have a high-quality service we can have confidence in.
"The priority is not who operates the route, but the quality of service provided to residents and the people visiting and investing in the county."
Sir Richard Branson, co-owner of Virgin Trains, said: "From the moment we found out that FirstGroup had been made the preferred bidder with a completely unrealistic bid, we questioned the way the offers had been assessed.
"I would like to thank our staff for their incredible work through unsettling times and to all our passengers who have been so supportive."
A spokesman for FirstGroup said: "We are extremely disappointed. We submitted a strong bid, in good faith and in strict accordance with the DfT's terms.
"Our bid would have delivered a better deal for West Coast passengers, the taxpayer and an appropriate return for shareholders."
Selwyn Brown, chairman of North Staffordshire passenger group Aces, said: "We are now in the dark about the future of Stoke station, the trains that run through it and the staff who work in it. All we can do is wait and see.
"We give public transport awards each year and on three occasions the staff at Stoke station have won awards for their service.
"Members tell us they are very efficient and very helpful.
"Obviously they are currently employed by Virgin, and one of our main concerns has been that we want the staff to be retained no matter who is running the franchise."
Joan Walley, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, said: "Government incompetence has left us with a shambles on a massive scale that threatens our local economy.
"There are huge questions but most pressing is making sure the trains run when the new bid was due to start."
Conservative Stafford MP Jeremy Lefroy added: "The decision is clearly the right one. The line is an essential artery for the nation's transport and vital for the people of Stafford and surrounding areas."
Figures from Network Rail show Virgin trains hit reliability and punctuality targets in 87.3 per cent of cases, while FirstGroup achieves between 90 per cent and 95.2 per cent.
But despite that, Virgin Trains beat all but one of FirstGroup's operators in Passenger Focus's latest customer satisfaction survey.
A total of 91 per cent of passengers said they were happy with the West Coast Mainline service compared with 79 per cent of First Capital Connect users and 82 per cent of First Great Western customers.
And 59 per cent of customers said they were happy with Virgin Trains value for money – compared to 32 per cent for FirstGroup.
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