West coast mainline: Branson begs for stay of execution

Desperate last-minute manoeuvres from Virgin boss Richard Branson and opposition MPs do not appear to be making an impact ahead of tomorrow's west coast mainline franchise transferral.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is set to sign the contract with FirstGroup tomorrow, ending Virgin's 15-year grip on the lucrative west coast franchise.

Labour is calling for a delay until parliament returns on September 3rd to scrutinise the decision. Branson has offered to run services on a not-for-profit basis while an independent audit takes place.

"We believe the facts will prove us to be right and we believe that Virgin will end up continuing to run the line," he told BBC1's Breakfast programme. "But the facts need to be examined."

Accepting such a statement would be embarrassing for the Department for Transport, which has insisted the winning bidder "was decided by a fair and transparent process".

An e-petition asking ministers to reconsider the franchise decision has now been signed by over 137,000 people, putting real political pressure on ministers to change their minds.

MPs whose seats are on the route are reporting strong opposition to the switch from their constituents.

One Morecambe and Lunesdale constituent wrote: "The people who have signed this petition are the people who use the services in question all the time and these are the people who are going to have to live with this mistake if something is not done about it."

Louise Ellman, chair of the Commons' transport committee, has written to transport secretary Justine Greening saying "important issues" need to be addressed.

Top of the list is a concern that the DfT was won over by FirstGroup's promise of a £5.5 billion payment, significantly higher than the £4.8 billion offered by Virgin.

Some are questioning whether that is achievable without further ticket price hikes of up to 11% for the next two years, and then up to eight per cent each year until 2026.

Labour has also warned that FirstGroup has ended its Great Western main line services before its franchise period came to an end, thus avoiding the heaviest payments to the government.

"This incentivises an early exit from the franchise as premium payments rise and the recent history of the company heightens concerns that this is a very real possibility, not least when the penalty for terminating the franchise is a fraction of these amounts," shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle wrote in a letter to Greening.

"Due to the wide-ranging nature of these concerns, I would therefore urge you to delay any signing of this contract until after you have made the statement to parliament – a statement I'm sure you will agree is appropriate for such an important and contentious decision."

The DfT made it clear it was not prepared to budge, however.

"We note the offer that one of the bidders appears to have made via the press," a spokesperson said.

"However, the winning bidder was decided by a fair and established process and no reason has been advanced to convince DfT not to sign the agreement."

Government officials have obviously failed to consult celebrity tweeters like Alan Sugar, Eddie Izzard and Derren Brown, who have been making clear their support of Virgin in droves.

Dermot O'Leary said he was a big fan of the uniforms worn by Virgin staff, while Rio Ferdinand stated that "u know you get good dindins coming home from Matches".