Franchising and structure bound to be questioned

The chaos over the West Coast bids is a direct result of the process and is bound to raise much wider questions over franchising and indeed the structure of the governance of the railways. The problem with the process arose because the civil servants concerned are, necessarily, separated from the rest of the Department while they undertake assessment of bids. That means their decision making process does not really come under scrutiny until, as is clear, it is too late. Ministers get presented with anonymised bids and select from them – tho one suspects they may guess which company each one represents.

The extent of this catastrophe though is breathtaking. The whole rail industry is now apparently put on hold while a review of the process takes place. This is bound to lead to much external – if not internal – questioning of the franchise process and searches for the answer to the Wolmar question, ‘what is franchising for?’ Given this debacle has cost at least £40m as the bid costs will be reimbursed, and that now another similar sum will have to be spent and that the operation on not only the West Coast but many other lines will be disrupted by the delays and uncertainty, it would be unthinkable that there will not be wider questions about the operation of the railways.

It will also highlight the need for a body separate from the Department to run the railways. The abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority always seemed a strange decision given that it made the Department into the ministry for railways, giving unprecedented power to civil servants to run and make strategic decisions over them. The folly of that has now been exposed. Civil servants come and go, and are deliberately trained to be generalists, while the railways need specialists. They also need stability rather than ministers who come and go at the whim of the Prime Minister. It is all too obvious that the way that the Department has been treated as a dumping ground for ministers on the way up or down is also part of the problem.

There is a lot more to this than simply a one off debacle. It is a result of the structural mistakes made over years and therefore the review needs to be comprehensive. And one last point. This has clearly been known about for quite a few days – one suspects a bit of news management in releasing it to try to move attention away from Milliband’s performance at party conference. Dirty business politics.


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