MPs seek to review west coast rail bid

Committee asks government to delay award of west coast main line rail franchise to FirstGroup to allow for parliamentary scrutiny

The chair of a cross-party committee of MPs called on the government to delay the award of the west coast main line rail franchise, won by FirstGroup last week, to allow parliamentary scrutiny of the deal.

The most lucrative of Britain’s rail franchises, currently run by Virgin Trains, will change hands in December after FirstGroup outbid competitors by a minimum of £700m – a large amount that led the defeated incumbent and others to question the figures.

But Louise Ellman, chair of the transport committee, has written to transport secretary Justine Greening asking her to postpone sign-off on the contract, due on 28 August, to allow the committee to review aspects that had caused concern. She said there were questions over FirstGroup’s ability to deliver the promised payments, whether services would be affected and what sanctions would be imposed if the firm walked away.

Ellman said: “This franchise will affect millions of passengers and last for up to 15 years. A great deal of public and private money is at stake. I have no fixed view on the matter and no preference for any of the bidders. My wish is simply to bring greater transparency to the process.”

On two occasions operators of the east coast main line, the other major train service north of London to Scotland, have not seen out their contracts after winning the franchise with large bids. Sir Richard Branson, co-owner of Virgin Rail, claimed a bid of FirstGroup’s size spelt “bankruptcy”.

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