Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson could be facing MPs in parliament next week to make his case that the award of the west coast mainline franchise was flawed, as doubts grow that the government can stick to its rail franchising timetable.
After the 11th hour application to the high court from Virgin’s lawyers last Tuesday stopped the planned signing off of the west coast contract to FirstGroup, the rail minister, Theresa Villiers, told the Commons on Monday: “As a result of a legal challenge, which the government intends to defend robustly, we have not yet signed the contract with First West Coast, and consequently the competition remains live.
The transport select committee will on Tuesday discuss bringing representatives of Virgin Trains and FirstGroup before them to answer questions about the process that saw the incumbents lose the franchise they held for 15 years after being outbid by up to £2bn for the rights to run trains from London to Glasgow until at least 2026.
Branson, who would be one of the more high-profile witnesses ever to appear before the committee, has indicated he would fly to London to attend. Tim O’Toole, the chief executive of FirstGroup who has frequently faced MPs before, would also answer questions.
The transport secretary, Justine Greening – should she survive the cabinet reshuffle – will also face questions at a separate session next Wednesday. The chair of the committee, Louise Ellman, had asked her to delay the franchise award for parliamentary scrutiny.
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns within the Department for Transport (DfT) that the judicial review may delay or throw off course the rail franchising system.
The 11th hour application to the high court from Virgin’s lawyers last Tuesday stopped the planned signing off of the west coast contract to FirstGroup. Should judges decide that the DfT needs to defend the process in court, the timetable for other planned awards is likely to slip.
Four major franchises are due to be decided in 2013, including the currently state-run east coast mainline and two operated by FirstGroup – the Great Western and Thameslink services.