Does “Commercial Confidentiality” lead to failings?

Virgin trains are to be asked to continue running the West Coast Main Line trains after 9th December when their franchise is officially due to end. This follows the shock realisation by the Department for Transport that the franchise process had been massively flawed. Patrick McLoughlin and Justine Greening had described the process – which led to Virgin trains submitting a Judicial Review request – as “robust”.

The problem comes from errors in the “ready reckoner” used by the Department for Transport. The BBC describes it like this – West Coast Main Line: Taxpayers ‘at risk’ in rail bid – :

“Civil servants construct their own financial model when preparing to award long-term contracts such as the West Coast Main Line franchise. This contains certain assumptions about what is likely to happen to important economic variables, such as inflation and passenger numbers, over the contract period….

“…The model produces what is known as a “ready reckoner” which tells each bidder the financial implications of their respective forecasts of how much they think they can increase revenues.”

Last year, campaigners against HS2 carried out research – verified by independent research firm – to find long distance passenger numbers on the WCML. These showed that the average passenger loading on long distance trains was 56%.

Various Freedom of Information requests were submitted, to get the official passenger loading numbers: these were refused, with Justine Greening citing “commercial confidentiality” as the reason.

However, Mark Preston, the BBC’s business editor says:

“Virgin tells me that they received the erroneous data from the Department for Transport’s flawed ready reckoner and concluded that it was wrong – so they ignored it when submitting their own bid.

“The current West Coast encumbent even went so far as to tell the Department for Transport that its numbers were awry.”

What would have happened if the Department for Transport had released the passenger data to HS2 campaigners, instead of keeping it secret?

We wanted it released, so we could scrutinise the case for HS2, but it’s not just the HS2 proposal that has been affected.

It’s clear that the secrecy did not help the franchise process, which now needs to be re-run. Nor did it help the taxpayer, who will be forking out at least £40 million to cover costs of the WCML franchise which that went awry through incorrect answers supplied by the Department for Transport.

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2 comments on “Does “Commercial Confidentiality” lead to failings?
  1. i have yet to see any evidence of any link whatsoever between the wcml fiasco and hs2 this is just wishful thinking on your part. in fact the growth numbers used by the dft to show the need forhs2 were LOWER then that stated by first or virgin. and as i understand it the figures were not calculated by the same method as that used for determining the winner of franchises. airlines and airports are also calculating that travel growth will continue hence the calls for new runways and airports.

  2. When a squirrel buries its acorns and forgets where they are, a couple of years later great big oak trees sprout and grow in unwanted places.

    Hide the data for a couple of years, then when truth is out it’s too late and great problems ensue.

    Sensitive information is confidentially protected to prevent backlash against the content, while it is being “cracked on” with. This is fine if everything all works out in the end, but is irresponsible if there are strong indications from the onset that it won’t.

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