Rail deal report highlights 'skills shortage' in DfT
A REPORT by a high-ranking Derby official into rail franchising has called on the Department for Transport to strengthen its expertise "as a top priority" after the West Coast Main Line debacle.
The Brown Review, compiled by Eurostar chief executive Richard Brown, says that although there are no fundamental problems with the franchise system, the department needed to "strengthen its capability".
Mr Brown, who lives in Littleover, was asked to conduct the review of the DfT's rail franchising programme by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
It followed a decision by the Derbyshire Dales MP to scrap an agreement to award the West Coast Main Line franchise to First Group, instead of Virgin, after "significant errors" were discovered in the way the bids were assessed. The decision to cancel the competition is likely to cost the taxpayer at least £55 million.
Mr Brown said: "In carrying out this review I have come to the conclusion that the franchising system is not broken but rather it has made a major contribution to Britain's increasingly successful rail network.
"It is therefore essential for both passengers and the wider rail market that the franchising programme is restarted as soon as possible.
"To achieve this goal, my review has identified a series of practical proposals and recommendations which, if implemented, will result in a stronger and more effective approach to franchising.
"The department must look to strengthen its franchising capability as a top priority."
Mr Brown's report relates specifically to rail franchising and not rolling stock policy.
Eighteen months ago, Derby train-maker Bombardier missed out on the £1.4 billion Thameslink contract for 1,200 carriages to German manufacturer Siemens.
But last year it emerged that a member of staff at the DfT involved in evaluating the West Coast franchise bids had done some work on the Thameslink contract.
An investigation by the National Audit Office also found that there had been swingeing cuts at the DfT – which lost almost a third of its staff – and questioned the quality of ministers' oversight.
Rail expert Sim Harris, managing editor of Rail News, said: "I can understand why some people might come to the conclusion that if the DfT does not have the skills to handle rail franchises then it may not have the expertise to deal with rolling stock decisions.
"But I would be cautious about endorsing such a view because we don't know whether the same people are involved."