August 28th 2012
It may be too late for Virgin, but could the furore surrounding the West Coast franchise forever change who is picked to run Britain's railways?
After losing control of the West Coast Mainline, Virgin did the unthinkable. It told ministers that they had made the wrong decision and began a campaign to get it overturned.
Richard Hebditch, campaigns director for Campaign for Better Transport, said that ultimately Virgin's "petulance" could have a positive impact on how the much-criticised process works.
When operators have lost out in the past, they've lick their wounds and moved onto the next bid. But Virgin had nothing to lose and decided it was time to rock the boat - hoping that First might fall overboard.
Virgin's campaign has been pretty successful. Within just a few days, 100,000 people had signed an online petition asking the Government to look again at the bids. The chairman of the Transport Select Committee has even written to Justine Greening, urging the minister to delay signing off the franchise before Parliament has had chance to scrutinise the bids.
Their petulance could have positive results in terms of getting people to look how the process actually works.
Richard Hebditch, Campaign for Better Transport
The e-petition, which has now passed 150,000 signatures, is only the 11th to top 100,000 since the website was launched a year ago. And as well as supporting Virgin's fight, it calls on the Government to "look at more than the highest bidder" when choosing who will operate the services that millions rely on every day.
But with the paperwork waiting to be signed, even a promise by Branson to run services on a non-for profit basis past December doesn't look like stopping the Government from shaking hands on an agreement in the next couple of days.
"I can't see the government changing their mind. I think the difference it could make though is to have more of a debate about how the franchise system works," said Richard Hebditch.
"There is sort of a rush to try get these franchises agreed and most of them are up for renewal in the next couple of years and the positive result is not that Virgin will possibly get them to change their mind about this franchise but actually to get more of a public debate about what we want to achieve with these franchises."
Ministers must be surprised with the response. Train operators usually occupy the same space as estate agents, bankers and themselves in the affections of the Great British public. Rarely is such brand loyalty seen on the railways. And although Virgin may not get the U-turn it wants, the legacy of the campaign may be a franchise system which looks for quality over cost.
Hebditch added: "I recognise it's difficult for DfT. The public procurement processes are not easy to do; the ways in which to provide an evidence base about how you make a decision, the audit trail and a fear of being challenged in court by unsuccessful bidders means it's quite difficult for DfT to talk about quality. But I still think there needs to be a stronger emphasis on the quality of the service which is being offered."