THE continuing crisis over the collapse of the West Coast franchise competition is now sweeping through the Department for Transport like an administrative version of Hurricane Sandy.
Ministers have grovelled and civil servants have been suspended, but with just one month left of the present West Coast contract there is still no confirmation that Virgin Trains will be running services on West Coast after 8 December.
There may be no alternative. The DfT is insisting, although increasingly faintly, that its own Directly Operated Railways remains ready to step in, but there are contradictory allegations that it is actually too late for DOR to ride to the rescue.
Another problem is finding suitably-experienced managers for a West Coast operation owned by Great Britain plc. Even those who are theoretically available are said to be too busy answering enquiries from Richard Brown as he conducts his inquiry into the Department’s methods of assessing franchises.
With only Virgin left, the DfT has placed itself in the precarious position of being the buyer in a sellersí market in which there is only one seller. Donít expect any bargains, then.
RMT leader Bob Crow has summed up the situation in his customarily expressive way today, saying: “As a result of sheer Government incompetence, right-wing ideology and desperation, Richard Branson has muscled his way in to a monopoly contractor position on Britainís biggest rail route where he can extract whatever price he demands in the full knowledge that this shower of mugs have left themselves with no Plan B. So much for Virginís PR pledge to run the services for nothing in the interim after the First Group bid collapsed into chaos.
ďA month away from the end of the current franchise, Virgin find themselves pulling the handle on a fruit machine thatís been fixed on jackpot at every spin of the reels. Itís no wonder they donít want to leave the arcade.Ē
Perhaps we should not be too surprised at this ridiculous state of affairs: after all, the DfT has been behaving ridiculously for quite some time. It has taken over three years to agree a contract with Agility Trains over IEP, which has been rejected by many industry players as the wrong answer.
Right or wrong, it certainly appears to be an expensive one, but then this is a Department which is flinging many millions of taxpayersí pounds out of the window as the result of Ďtechnical errorsí over West Coast.
At least IEP is signed off, but other DfT projects are now shuddering in the rising gale. At the forefront of these comes the Thameslink rolling stock order, which has now missed so many official deadlines that any further ministerial predictions of completion are probably worth about as much as a used bus ticket.
The reason seems clear enough: Siemens is finding the search for privately-sourced funding hard going, following the Eurozone crisis. The Government has effectively recognised that the world has changed since 2008 by providing funding guarantees for the Crossrail fleet, but it cannot blithely insert a similar reassurance in the Thameslink deal now, because that would breach procurement law.
There is no shortage of critics urging that reserve bidder Bombardier should be given the contract on the grounds that the fleet would then be built in Derby, but would Bombardier, with its lower credit rating, be able to obtain funding where Siemens had failed?
The only other option would be to start the whole process again, when a Crossrail-style guarantee could presumably be included. However, this would delay the new trains by another two or three years, pushing the Thameslink Programme back to 2020 at least. This would have implications far beyond the Bedford to Brighton line, because Network Rail is now electrifying a swathe of routes from Leeds to Swansea which will rely to a considerable extent on the electric units which are to be cascaded from Thameslink and Great Northern.
Without them, we could then be placed in yet another ridiculous position, that of running diesel Sprinters under shiny new wires. The East Coast of the USA is now getting its house back in order after the October hurricane, but what kind of rescue squad will be needed to restore the DfT?
Choppy waters ahead, Minister. Outlook: rising storm.