The curse of Nightmare Manor

INTO the Railnews inbox comes a helpful message entitled ‘Virgin Trains Press Release: Book early for Christmas train travel’.

The body of this release concedes that there ‘remains some uncertainty’ about who will be running West Coast trains by then, and we are pleased to announce that this phrase has won the Railnews Blog Award for Greatest Understatement of the Month.

Congratulations! The prize, should you wish to take it, is a cup of tepid coffee (and ONE biscuit, chocolate excluded) in the company of the DfT minister of your choice (subject to availability).

Of course tickets for Christmas and New Year travel bought from Virgin will be valid come what may, but in almost every other respect there is actually total uncertainty about West Coast at the moment.

The hapless transport secretary, the amiable and newly-appointed Patrick McLoughlin, has walked into a range of withering crossfire from Parliamentary Committees, unions, consumer groups, backbenchers, industry figureheads and highly-paid accountancy firms.

Although the decision to award West Coast to FirstGroup is now discredited (although none of the bidders are), Mr McLoughlin must be wondering how long he is doomed to stand in the naughty corner as the result of a decision which was not of his making.

Indeed, he is now veritably in the position of the hero of a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’ who, through force of circumstances, is locked in the Dark Tower at Nightmare Manor, where the ceiling is descending ominously while deadly snakes are slithering down the chimney and a sinuous white vapour is creeping under the door.

The choices facing Mr M. are few in number, and none of them offer an easy ride. He could create a management contract for Virgin, who (apart from a hundred or more operating-related contracts which will need to be renewed somewhat sharpish) say they can carry on with the good work after 02.00 on 9 December for as long as HM Government wants.

Or he could call on his very own ‘operator of last resort’ Directly Operated Railways to take over completely, but the number of contracts which must be sorted out sharpish (see above) then increases by about 2,900, otherwise West Coast staff will have no valid employment documentation on takeover day – unless DOR buys the existing operator West Coast Trains from Virgin and Stagecoach. (You read it here first).

There is a third possibility, although it isn’t much of a one, which is to extend the existing franchise in Virgin’s favour. As West Coast has already been through the mill a bit one way and the other, and was extended from March to December, this would be a bolt-on attached to a bolt-on.

The problem with Nos. (1) and (3) is that either threaten to ride a coach and horses through European procurement law. Even a management contract could be worth £20 million, and that sort of amount brings it well within the clammy grasp of OJEU, along with all manner of exciting Directives which are not to be argued with (in theory).

If Mr M. tries for (1) or (3) without regard for OJEU, not only may he find the forces of Brussels ranged against him, but also (it is said) many of his own officials, who apparently do not like Virgin very much (for one reason or another).

Civil servants will never admit that personal feelings enter into administrative decisions, but they can brandish OJEU (if they can lift it) and mutter insistently about Treaties and Obligations.

Which brings us back to (2). That is not so easy as it looks either. When you unwrap (2) it becomes the solution that Dare Not Speak Its Name, because its name (we refer you to almost any recent RMT press release) is Nationalisation.

That is not a word we countenance at No.10, or the Cabinet Office, and certainly not at the Treasury. If DOR did take over there would also be, at the very least, chortling from the Opposition benches and cries of glee from the unions.

So there you have it, and a decision is supposed to be announced to Parliament on Monday.

Somehow brave Patrick must prevail, notwithstanding the snakes, white vapour and the descending ceiling. But how will he make that vital bound to freedom?

All we can say for now is that this dilemma seems likely to spoil anyone’s weekend, even if it isn’t spent at Nightmare Manor.

To be continued in our next.

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