The chaos engulfing the prestigious West Coast rail franchise has deepened after unions threatened strike action amid uncertainty over jobs and working conditions.
The RMT rail union said the bitter tussle between FirstGroup and Virgin Rail over the franchise had left staff and passengers “without a clue” as to who will be running the vital London to Scotland services from December.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Rail is seeking a judicial review of the Government’s decision to award a new 13-year contract to FirstGroup to run the West Coast Mainline services.
If permitted by a judge, a full legal inquiry could delay the handover of the franchise, leaving staff in limbo.
When a rail franchise changes hands, staff are transferred to the new operator under employment regulations known as TUPE.
The legislation is designed to protect employees’ terms and conditions when they change employer.
With the new contract for the West Coast franchise still unsigned, the RMT warned there could be “total meltdown” as the transfer of staff “cannot be done overnight”.
The situation could become even more problematic if the Government decides to temporarily re-nationlise the line if court proceedings delay a handover to FirstGroup in December.
RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, said: “The fiasco over the award of the West Coast franchise has left both staff and the travelling public without a clue as to who will be running this key transport artery in little more than 10 weeks’ time.”
The union, which is finalising preparations for a strike ballot, is pushing for the permanent re-nationalisation of the line.
East Coast services are currently operated by a state-owned company but will be returned to private sector hands next year when the franchise is re-let.
“It is still not out of the question that there will be no one to run it if the Government don’t stop messing about and accept that, with the clock ticking down, they need to get on with the public sector option as a matter of urgency or risk a total meltdown,” said Mr Crow.
“The public sector stepped in and rescued the East Coast and rather than waiting for history to repeat itself we are calling for the safe and logical publicly-owned option to now be given an opportunity to sort the West Coast debacle.”
The new Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, told parliament on Wednesday that he was determined to press ahead with FirstGroup’s contentious bid for the franchise, which could see the company pay out more than £13.3bn if the contract is extended to 15 years.
But he signalled the Government would take the line into taxpayer control if the new contract remains unsigned on December 9.
Mr McLoughlin’s comments were a direct snub to Virgin, which had offered to continue running the line for free for several months if legal action delayed the handover.
Virgin Rail, a joint venture between Virgin Trains and Stagecoach, has been running West Coast services for the past 15 years.
Virgin is trying to prove that FirstGroup should have been forced to surrender £600m in risk capital as a protection against its bid turning sour rather than the near £200m that has been agreed with Government.