Rail unions have urged the Government to re-nationalise rail services on the West Coast Main Line after ministers slammed the brakes on the process of transferring the franchise from Virgin Trains to new operators FirstGroup.
The future of inter-city services on the line, which include trains running from Birmingham to London and Manchester, remained unclear as the Government, warring rail companies and union leaders continued a public war of words.
Ministers admitted they could not sign new contracts after Virgin launched legal action challenging the decision to strip it of the franchise it has held since 1997.
Last month the Government announced that transport giant FirstGroup had won its bid to take over inter-city services on the line from December 9. But Virgin Rail accused ministers of acting “unlawfully”, “irrationally” and against EU law by awarding the £13.3 billion contract to FirstGroup, which bid for the franchise under the name “First West Coast”.
It is unclear how long the court challenge will take. Virgin has offered to continue running services until legal proceedings have been completed, but it says the Government has not taken it up on the offer.
Rail union the RMT described the franchise process as a “shambles” and urged Ministers to re-nationalise the railway instead.
It pointed out that inter-city services on the East Coast Main Line, running from London to Leeds and Newcastle, have been nationalised since 2009, when rail operator National Express East Coast defaulted on its payments and was stripped of its franchise. The Government set up a business, owned by the Department for Transport, to take responsibility for the line instead.
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said: “This whole West Coast franchise process has moved from farce to chaos and RMT wants urgent publication of the full documentation of both the FirstGroup and Virgin bids so that the people who will end up paying for this inevitable fiasco, the taxpayers and the passengers, can judge exactly what is going on behind the cloak of commercial confidentiality.
“The case for renationalisation is now overwhelming as a key route in the nation that gave the railways to the world is dragged down to a laughing stock by the insane privatisation process.
“The public sector stepped in and rescued the East Coast and rather than waiting for history to repeat itself we are calling for the tried and tested publicly owned option to now be given an opportunity to sort the West Coast debacle.”
The Department for Transport said it could not comment while legal proceedings were underway except to say that it would “robustly” defend its decision and expected to sign the contract with FirstGroup “soon”.
But the now former Transport Minister Theresa Villiers insisted that FirstGroup’s bid had been the best. She said: “Taken together, I believe that the commitments in First West Coast’s bid represent significant improvements for passengers and will provide a good return for the taxpayer.”