The future of the West Coast Main Line franchise was thrown into doubt today when the deal to hand it over to FirstGroup was suspended because of a legal challenge by Virgin.
Virgin, who have run the west coast since 1997, launched the challenge after losing the bid last week.
The Transport Secretary Justine Greening today confirmed that the decision is on hold, though the government plans to fight Virgin’s legal challenge “robustly”.
She said: “We have not yet signed the contract with First West Coast, and consequently the competition remains open.”
The battle is over the right to operate the busiest rail network in the country, between London and Glasgow, through the West Midlands and the North West. The new contract was intended to run from December until April 2026, with the option of continuing until the end of 2027.
Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Branson, reacted to the loss of the franchise last week by vowing to go to court and try to prove that officials from the Department of Transport had miscalculated and that Virgin’s bid was more “deliverable” than FirstGroup’s.
He claimed that the price FirstGroup had offered for the franchise was so high that they would have to fill “every seat” on their trains and put up fares to cover it. “We bid twice for the East Coast Main Line and on both occasions we were runners up - and on both occasions the person who won it overbid and went bust,” he added.
But Ms Greening today claimed that that FirstGroup’s bid offered a better deal for taxpayers and rail passengers. It included the promise of 11 new 125 mph six car electric trains and 12,000 extra passenger seats per day from December 2016, faster journeys between London Euston and Glasgow, new services to Blackpool, Bolton and Shrewsbury, lower standard fares, Oyster style smart ticketing and £22m in Station improvements.
Virgin has accused the government of choosing the “high risk” bid which they say should be independently audited, and Labour’s Maria Eagle said the award of the franchise seemed to be “almost exclusively a 'bottom line' one, driven by a particularly high pledge of payments to government.”
A petition on the Downing Street website calling for the franchise decision to be reconsidered has attracted more than 167,000 signatures.