Scotland politics

West Coast Main Line: Assurances given over post-December timetable

Virgin and First train
Virgin lost the west coast contract to FirstGroup in the summer

Scotland's transport secretary has told MSPs it was not clear who would run the West Coast Main Line train service after a franchise deal was scrapped.

However, Keith Brown said he had been given assurances by the Department for Transport (DfT) that the current timetable would continue.

FirstGroup was supposed to take on the Glasgow to London service in December.

That plan was halted when the UK government admitted mistakes had been made in the franchise process.

Two independent inquiries have been ordered into what went wrong with the west coast process and three civil servants have been suspended.

Mr Brown said his key concern was that passengers who use the busy route to and from England should be given guarantees on the service.

He informed Holyrood that he had been told by the DfT that the service would be run to timetable, using the same trains and the same staff.

However, he added that it was not yet clear who would be in charge of that timetable.

Mr Brown told the chamber: "I have still to see the detail of DfT's contingency plan, and it is still not clear who will be operating train services in December.

"However, after finally managing to speak to the UK rail minister, I have his assurance that services will run to timetable, using the same trains and staff, and that tickets and bookings will be valid.

"DfT Ministers stated yesterday that our administrations have "common interest" in making sure there is no break in the service for passengers after 9 December.

"While I can understand that, in light of the mishandling of the franchise many people may be reluctant to give too much weight to DfT assurances.

"And although our powers in regard to rail remain limited, I am determined that I and my officials will monitor these assurances carefully and offer all assistance necessary, to ensure passengers are not disadvantaged."

Virgin Trains currently run the service, but FirstGroup was awarded the new franchise following a bidding process.

In the wake of the controversial decision, Mr Brown complained that the Scottish government was given no warning of a decision which affects the country.

The West Coast route serves 31 million people travelling between London, the West Midlands, the north west of England, North Wales and the central belt of Scotland.

The August franchise announcement sparked a legal challenge from Virgin, which has run the franchise since 1997.

The Department for Transport said because of the decision to rerun the bidding process it would no longer be contesting the judicial review launched by Virgin Trains in the High Court.

Labour transport spokeswoman Elaine Murray branded the situation a "fiasco of jaw-dropping proportions".

Mr Brown should "join UK Labour in supporting a government take-over of the West Coast main line, at least while the contract is being re-tendered", she said.

The Green party said both the main railways down the east and west coasts should be in the public sector.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs also turned on the transport minister.

Conservative Alex Johnstone criticised the way Mr Brown "has now managed to spend much of the last 36 hours stirring up unjustified concerns over the continuity of the West Coast rail service".

Liberal Democrat Jim Hume said millions of pounds had been "wasted" in the tendering process for another rail service in the Borders.

He said: "The Transport Minister spoke repeatedly about the regrettable waste of taxpayers' money resulting from this episode, and he's absolutely right.

"But I remind him that last year his officials wasted millions of pounds over a tendering process for the relatively small Borders rail project."

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