THE row over the West Coast Mainline franchise continued this week with a debate in Parliament.
An e-petition calling on the Government to rethink its decision to award the contract to First Group has attracted more than 173,000 signatures, and the case is currently waiting to be heard in the courts.
Getting this decision right is critical.
It affects many people in Wigan, including me, who regularly use the West Coast Mainline.
The route carries an astonishing number of people – 31 million passenger journeys every year – and the contract, which is worth a massive £5.5bn, lasts for 15 years.
There are several concerns about the way the decision appears to have been reached.
One of the main ones is that it seems to be almost exclusively based on price.
FirstGroup’s successful bid was £5.5bn compared with £4.8bn offered by Virgin.
But it is far from clear whether the FirstGroup bid is sustainable as it is based on a huge, projected increase in passenger numbers – 66 million over 15 years.
By contrast, Virgin believes that passengers will only increase by 49 million.
The growth in passenger numbers over the last decade was fuelled by a £9bn upgrade programme, but without similar planned investment it is not clear where this growth will come from.
I and many of my colleagues have consistently questioned the Department for Transport about this but have been unable to get clear answers.
The decision to award the contract to First Group was announced during the summer recess when Parliament had no chance to scrutinise the decision.
The lack of transparency is extremely worrying.
The other central question is the quality of service that will be provided.
Despite my repeated requests Ministers refused to write accessibility for disabled passengers into the bid criteria so the willingness and capacity to improve appalling accessibility for disabled people has not even been considered.
It also appears that First Group scored higher on customer service in the bidding process than Virgin, which seems unbelievable given that several surveys of First Group users show that they consider its Great Western Service to be one of the worst in the country.
In Monday’s debate the Minister did not address any of those points. The ongoing uncertainty is very difficult for the staff involved, but for them, and for the passengers Government must get this decision right.
Twice in recent years contracts have ended early because the companies involved could not deliver on their promises.
Unless Ministers get a grip on this, there is a danger history will repeat itself.