Anyone with a GCSE in maths could have averted this disaster

Only Sir Richard Branson's determination to see the DfT in court triggered the reappraisal

Share

On trains, as with planes, the preferred term to disguise a prize foul-up is "operational difficulties". Yet when this week's Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, quashed the award for the West Coast Main Line rail franchise to FirstGroup, he was refreshingly explicit.

The whole bid process, he said, must be rebooted because of "deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes by civil servants in my department". (Except, he might have added, it wasn't my department when the monumental miscalculations were made. It was – glancing back at his hapless predecessor, Justine Greening – hers.)

The taxpayer will lose tens of millions as the costs of bids are refunded to all four original candidates – roughly £1 for each British voter. Travellers on Britain's flagship railway face a further 18 months in the twilight zone while bids are tweaked and reappraised.

The incumbent, Virgin Trains, will not want to invest another Branson farthing unless and until it wins the recount.

And the frontline staff who keep the whole train set on track face a couple more years' uncertainty about whose uniform they will wear – with the renewed prospect that their future employer could be French or Dutch.

Anyone with five minutes to spare, a Maths GCSE and a £4.99 calculator from Argos could have averted the entire omnishambles by checking the civil servants' sums. Except we weren't allowed to see their flawed working-out of the risk in each bid and how to price it.

Instead, the detail of each bid remained in the DfT's Horseferry Road bunker, while Ms Greening assured the taxpaying and travelling public that the secret arithmetic was "incredibly robust".

As a bidder, Sir Richard Branson will have known more than the public and press were permitted. Yet he told the Transport Select Committee, with some exasperation: "Based on that little information we have, we believe that the rules have not been followed."

When the tycoon challenged the West Coast verdict, detractors accused him of being a bad loser.

Yet it appears that only his determination to see the DfT in court triggered the reappraisal that led to the Mr McLoughlin's confession.

Every major transport decision based on shadowy calculations must be revisited. Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham, demanded an "immediate review" of the business case for the planned High Speed 2 line from London to the Midlands and beyond.

The civil servants' predictions on passenger numbers and carbon impact will prove of particular interest to both supporters and opponents of the proposed link.

Off the rails, the cost-benefit calculations for new road-building projects – or adding yet more lanes to the M25 – should also be open to scrutiny. Most pressingly, the previous Transport Secretary's rationale for ruling out a third runway at Heathrow is now open to question. It may well be that seven out of 10 UK residents exposed to aircraft noise above 55dB, and that one in four Europeans who suffer from these levels live around Britain's busiest airport.

But where are the numbers to support Ms Greening's assertion that the burden of a third runway would be intolerable?

Taxpayers may speculate about procurement blunders elsewhere in the public sector. But transport is the government department that touches more citizens than any other – making proper scrutiny essential to avoid further operational difficulties in the Horseferry Road area.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£100 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Randstad Education are curren...

Web Developer (Infrastructure, JavaScript, jQuery, jQuery UI)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Web Developer (Infrastructure, JavaScript, jQuer...

DT Technician

£65 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: DT Technician required to start...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: One of SThree's most successfu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv  

Why do we stand by and watch Putin?

Ian Birrell
 

Daily catch-up: Underground, Overground, over the Irish Sea and clever pigs

John Rentoul
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor