Minister backs First but warns of more delays

Marion Dakers
TRANSPORT minister Theresa Villiers yesterday defended her department’s decision to award the West Coast rail franchise to FirstGroup, but could offer no update on when the contract will be signed, raising fears of further delays.

Villiers told MPs in a written statement that First’s bid for the 13-year franchise “represent[s] significant improvements for passengers and will provide a good return for taxpayers”.

But she gave no word on when First’s contract, due to be signed last week, will be completed, following an 11th-hour legal challenge by current operator Virgin Trains.

“The competition remains live. I cannot give the full commercial details of the winning bid, or indeed of the other bids,” she said.

Virgin Trains yesterday hit out at the lack of access to details of First’s rival bid, which is worth around £1bn more to the government than its own proposal.

The firm said in a statement that if it was awarded the route, more trains would be refurbished and it would offer firmer commitments to infrastructure upgrades.

The controversial franchise process could be put under fresh scrutiny in parliament. MPs with constituencies on the route and the Labour party are pressing for a chance to discuss the decision.

The backbench business committee meets today to consider giving the issue time in parliament, sparked by an e-petition.