E-petition signed by more than 100,000 people likely to trigger parliamentary debate on decision to award route to FirstGroup
More than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition calling for the west coast rail franchise award to FirstGroup to be reconsidered – a figure that is likely to trigger a parliamentary debate on the decision.
The numbers grew through social media campaigns, including tweets from several high-profile sympathisers with Virgin, the company which has been running the train service from London to Glasgow since 1997.
The e-petition was created by a rail passenger from Scotland, Ross McKillop, stating: “The west coast mainline’s current value is thanks to millions of pounds of investment and commitment from Virgin Trains – they’re not perfect, none are – but they have delivered a reliable service for 15 years and turned the line around.”
McKillop, 29, an IT consultant and lighting designer, from Glasgow, said he was independent of Virgin and other campaign groups that have since supported his petition.
He said: “I can’t think of a time when so many people have rallied around a private company. The impression I’ve always had is that they’re good people to deal with and that means something to customers, even if it doesn’t mean anything to the people at the Department for Transport. I’m not sure that behind closed doors is the right place for these kinds of decision to be made.”
Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry and Joey Barton are among those who have re-tweeted links to the petition.
An e-petition that garners more than 100,000 signatures will be considered by the backbench business committee for debate if MPs make the case. Ten previous e-petitions have passed that mark, with parliamentary debates over the Hillsborough disaster and the extradition of Babar Ahmad among others.
The DfT announced last week that FirstGroup had won the franchise, to run the service from 9 December this year until 2026, with a core bid of £5.5bn, a sum that Virgin Rail co-owner Sir Richard Branson said would spell bankruptcy.
A FirstGroup spokesperson said: “We appreciate that Richard Branson is a high-profile celebrity with millions following him personally on social media. However, our business is transport – first and foremost. We are introducing major improvements to the InterCity west coast franchise to enhance the customer experience, including improved WiFi and catering, as well as additional services and more seats and reducing standard anytime fares by 15% on average.
“We have a long and proven track record in running rail services and will be delivering better value for taxpayers. We look forward to welcoming all customers to their new and improved service from December.”
A Virgin spokesman said: “Richard does have celebrity friends, but he doesn’t have 100,000 celebrity friends.”
He added that the franchise decision needing debating in parliament as it was “a nonsense to make an announcement as big as this in the middle of summer when there is no minister around to answer questions”.
Commons transport committee chair Louise Ellman said a request to the transport secretary, Justine Greening, to delay signing off the contracts until MPs could scrutinise them had apparently been rebuffed.