A senior Conservative MP has accused ministers of ‘making a mess’ of awarding the next South Eastern rail franchise after the process was delayed without explanation.
Michael Fallon, MP for Sevenoaks and a former defence secretary, asked rail minister Andrew Jones for an explanation for the decision to allow incumbent Govia to continue the franchise temporarily.
Rail minister Andrew Jones
Mr Jones recapped the recent history of the franchise competition, from the announcement in June 2017 that there were three bidders, including Govia and a subsidiary of Stagecoach, via an extension from December 2018 when the franchise should have begun to June 2019, to the ongoing negotiation of a of a further extension, which could last until April 2020.
He said: ‘This additional time is necessary to deliver the best possible outcome for passengers and taxpayers alike.’
Mr Fallon pointed out: ‘He hasn’t quite explained why such a mess has been made of this particular franchise.’
The former minister asked: ‘Can he confirm when exactly my constituents, who already pay the second highest fares in the home counties, when they will get the long-promised new carriages? Can he explain why, if the franchising system is now under review, he has been able to award an eight-year franchise for the East Midlands?’
He added: ‘Is it not time to restore confidence in the whole franchising system?’
Mr Jones was unable to provide either an explanation for the delay or a date for the award of the new franchise.
He said: ‘I share his impatience to get the benefits to his – and indeed to all – constituents that are emerging from our franchises. This is a huge and complex piece of public procurement. It’s right to take the time to make sure we get it right and to finalise this competition. The area is one of the most complex on our network. It has a mix of high speed and commuter services. It has highly intensive use of infrastructure.
‘I can’t tell the honourable gentleman the date when we will be able to make the announcement. This is a live competition involving market sensitive information.’
Mr Jones said that ministers hoped that the benefits of new franchises on both the South Eastern route and the East Midlands could be delivered before the Williams rail review concludes.
Labour’s shadow transport minister, Rachael Maskell, said that Mr Jones was again ‘forced to the dispatch box to defend the actions – or in this case the lack of action – by the ever failing secretary of state.’
She pointed out that only two firms were now left in the competition to run ‘Britain’s most beleaguered franchise’, including Govia, following ‘a litany of failures’ highlighted in the Gibbs report two years ago ‘and a lacklustre approach by the secretary of state'.
Ms Maskell also raised the issue of an apparently inadvertent leak by Network Rail of confidential elements of Stagecoach’s bid strategy for the East Midlands franchise to Abellio, which was awarded the franchise earlier this month, asking what changes Mr Jones had made to ensure a repeat.
Mr Jones did not address this issue in his reply to Ms Maskell, although he did state that he had not discussed the South Eastern franchise with trade unions, because it included ‘important market sensitive information’.