The government has faced accusations of running Britain’s railways “on the hoof” after it scrapped the bidding process for the Southeastern rail franchise, making it the latest botched procurement by the Department for Transport (DfT).
Officials will now have until 1 April 2020 to choose the next franchise operator. Go-Ahead Group, which currently operates the railway, will run Southeastern for four months longer than planned to give Whitehall the chance to do this, it said this morning.
The DfT said it had cancelled the competition because it was concerned the process would cost the taxpayer too much. It is unclear how the department will go about finding the next franchise operator.
A spokesperson said: “We have taken the decision to cancel the Southeastern franchise competition.
“This follows significant concerns that continuing the competition process would lead to additional costs incurred to the taxpayer, with no certainty that this would deliver envisaged benefits for passengers in a timely fashion.
“The department will use this period to develop a solution that delivers the capacity and performance benefits that passengers are expecting, and ensure that the recommendations of the Williams Review can be implemented.”
The Williams Review is run by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams. Last month, he said the franchising model needed to be replaced by a “new commercial model” that worked in the interests of passengers.
He suggested that an independent and “arms length” body could be created to act as a guiding mind for the railway, with the government taking less of a day-to-day role in running it.
Operator ‘disappointed’ with decision
Go-Ahead chief executive David Brown this morning said he was “disappointed” the process had been cancelled.
“A lot of hard work was put into a strong bid that would have built upon the achievements of Southeastern in recent years in improving performance and customer satisfaction, delivering more capacity and investment.”
He said the firm would work with the department on the next steps in choosing the next operator.
The decision comes days after the government has lost a bid to strike out legal challenges from three rail firms that are contesting its handling of controversial franchise bids, including Southeastern.
Last week the High Court gave Virgin, Stagecoach and Arriva Trains the green light to challenge former transport secretary Chris Grayling’s decision to ban them from bidding for the East Midlands, West Coast and South Eastern franchises.
The three firms were excluded from the competition for their refusal to accept open-ended pension liabilities with the government.
Running rail services ‘on the hoof’
Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers general secretary Mick Cash said: “The cancellation of the competition for the Southeastern franchise shows yet again that the whole privatised rail system is broken and coming apart at the seams.
“The chaos of short-term extensions to get the government off the hook is a measure of just how rotten their rail policies are.
“You cannot run a serious and reliable rail service on the hoof and yet that is what the Government are doing and passengers paying a small fortune to travel on the Southeastern services will be rightly outraged.”
Main image: Southeastern Railway