THE DEPARTMENT for transport plans to formally approve the handover of the West Coast Main Line as early as tomorrow, brushing off pleas from MPs and Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson to delay the move.
Sir Richard took to the airwaves yesterday, calling on the government to allow time for politicians to re-examine FirstGroup’s winning bid to run the route from December.
The founder of Virgin Group, whose Virgin Trains joint venture stands to lose its remaining rail franchise under the decision, wants “a brief stay so the debate can take place and the facts can be examined”.
He also called on the Prime Minister to “get some sense into the DfT”, adding that Virgin would run the route on a not-for-profit basis while the bids are reconsidered.
“We will fight until there’s no longer a fight to be had,” he told the BBC. “We may not succeed, but this is the first time we’ve been really outspoken in saying something is wrong at the department for transport.”
A spokesperson for the DfT acknowledged the efforts, but insisted that “the winning bidder was decided by a fair and established process and no reason has been advanced to convince DfT not to sign the agreement”.
FirstGroup chief executive Tim O’Toole said he was pleased by the firm stance, adding yesterday that his firm “won the bid fair and square”.
But the department’s refusal to budge will disappoint the public accounts committee, which has also asked for a delay in order to probe the details of the franchise bids, and the Labour party, whose shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said yesterday that MPs should be given a chance to raise concerns over the decision in parliament.