First Group abandons SRA legal challenge

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The Independent Online

First Group yesterday dropped its legal action against the Strategic Rail Authority over its exclusion from the shortlist of bidders for the new Greater Anglia rail franchise.

The move came as First Group's chief executive, Moir Lockhead, prepared to pick up the consolation prize of the new Trans-Pennine franchise. The company also said it would bid aggressively for the new "integrated Kent" commuter franchise being created by the SRA following the sacking of Connex South Eastern.

A First spokesman said the timing of its decision to abandon the judicial review into the SRA's handling of the Greater Anglia franchise was purely coincidental. "The decision on the judicial review was taken late on Thursday night. We were as gobsmacked as everyone else when the Connex announcement came out the following morning," he added.

The SRA's move to strip Connex of the South Eastern franchise, because of concerns over financial management at the French-owned operator, puts First in pole position to extend its rail operations.

First Group was in a two-horse race with Connex for Trans-Pennine, which will operate services from Manchester and Liverpool to Leeds, Hull and up to Darlington and Newcastle. Rail executives said it was now inconceivable that the franchise would go to the failed French company.

First Group will also be in with a strong chance of winning the "integrated Kent" franchise. "It would be nice to get that one to make up for the loss of Greater Anglia," a spokesman said. "As one door shuts, another one opens."

Richard Bowker, the SRA chairman, insisted that the dropping of the First Group legal action and the sacking of Connex South Eastern were unrelated. He said Connex was told of its fate at a meeting at the SRA's headquarters at 6pm on Thursday, although the decision had been taken two weeks earlier by the SRA board. The meeting was attended by Olivier Brousse, chief executive of Connex, its new chairman John O'Brien and its ex-chairman Antoine Hurel and Stephane Richard, chief executive of Veolia, Connex's parent company.

The following morning, the SRA and First Group made a joint application to the High Court to withdraw the application for judicial review. "Our relationship with First Group is very important to us. Moir Lockhead and I are both keen to stop worrying about the past and move on to the future," Mr Bowker said.