Siemens let off steam in latest Bombardier rail jobs row

Bombardier jobs march in Derby Image copyright bbc
Image caption Bombardier train workers march to save their jobs at a rally in Derby

Big multi-national companies tend be super cautious, especially when they find themselves caught in the middle of a political storm.

But Siemens has been quick off the mark in the latest spat between Derby-based train makers Bombardier and the government.

Siemens is now having to defend the technical specifications of its winning bid to make the new carriages for the Bedford to Brighton Thameslink service.

It's being whispered among pro-Bombardier supporters that the Siemens' carriages for Thameslink are untested and won't come up to scratch.

U-turn demanded

That was certainly a claim repeated at a big rally in Derby, in support of 1,400 Bombardier workers now facing redundancy.

A further 2,000 jobs are on the line.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Steve Scrimshaw says that Siemens offered the best deal and the 'best value for money'

Six and a half thousand voices at the rally shouted in unison for a government U-turn to give Canadian-owned Bombardier the Thameslink contract.

Siemens has responded with one voice. That's come from Steve Scrimshaw, the UK managing director of the firm's Rolling Stock division.

"There's been a lot of misinformation in the press about this contract. I understand that, but it's time to put the record straight," he told me.

"The carriages and Desiro trains we'll use on Thameslink are safe. Since 2007, we have invested 50m Euros in the development of our Desiro City train. It's a big investment and commitment to the UK.

"We have been using the same technology on our trains and carriages already in service on a number of other UK lines, such as London Midland and East Anglia."

Political pressure

The German-based multinational is also keen to neuter the British jobs for British workers rhetoric.

The contract will create 1,400 jobs in the UK. Siemens is to build two new depots to maintain the Thameslink trains.

"Around 600 jobs will also be created in manufacturing; 300 employed directly by us at one of our factories in Hebburn in South Tyneside. And a further 300 jobs will be created within the UK supply chain," he added.

Last week, a delegation of Derbyshire Conservative MPs saw the Prime Minister to press Bombardier's case. Among the protesters at Saturday's rally were some of those Tory MPs.

They want the Department for Transport to speed through other government rail contracts to give Bombardier a chance.

Without new orders for Bombardier, they fear the UK's last train making production hub will disappear for good.

Future for rail production?

From her constituency office in Long Eaton near Derby, I found Erewash MP Jessica Lee determined to maintain the political pressure, even though parliament is now in summer recess.

"Government departments still continue to work over the parliamentary recess. We are requesting the Treasury and the Department for Business to look at releasing contracts for Bombardier that are already in the pipeline," she said.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Siemens won the contract and defends the technical specifications of its winning bid

On the wall of her office is a striking image, a painting of the King George V loco from the heyday of steam.

"My grandfather worked for the railways. But this issue isn't about looking back at the past. The railways have an important future.

"We need to keep railway production in Derby and not lose such important engineering skills."

Ministers still claim their hands are tied because of procurement rules drawn up by the last Labour government and EU competition policy.

According to Lord Andrew Adonis, Labour's last Transport Secretary, that's "total rubbish".

"If coalition is so unhappy with how we drew up this contract, they are well within their rights to scrap it and start the re-tendering process all over again," he told me.

Value for money

Another former Labour Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, has particularly strong links with Derby's railway tradition. His father was a rail worker in the city.

He's even more forthright in his criticism of the coalition's ministerial team now running his old department.

"What they are saying is totally disingenuous. Their knee-jerk anti-European language is just cover for their failings on this issue," he said.

Ministers maintain Siemens won the £1.4m contract because it offered the best deal.

"Do I think the government will change its mind?" asks Siemens' Steve Scrimshaw.

Image caption Geoff Hoon has been forthright in his criticisms of the coalition's team

"Put it this way. It was a public tendering process; everyone - including Bombardier - knew what the criteria was. The government selected on the best value for money."

But best value for money - as viewed from Derby - isn't the total picture.

Despite assurances from Siemens, politicians and the unions want ministers to take into account the impact of the contract going to Germany... not just for the UK's last train makers but the very future of British manufacturing.