Yesterday, Transport Secretary Patrick McLouhglin and chief DfT civil servant Philip Rutnam appeared before the Transport Select Committee, trying to explain the West Coast Mainline farce. Whilst both parties hid behind being new in the job, commercial confidentiality arrangements and not wishing to pre-empt the three ongoing investigations, what little did leak out was damning.
One of the most bizarre things that came across was that the Price Waterhouse Coopers report which was commissioned into the fiasco of the WCML franchise, which the DfT received on 2nd October, is regarded as ‘commercially confidential’. Similar rules also prevented Rutnam, the senior civil servant in the DfT from even seeing the franchising figures until the process was complete. Patrick McLoughlin said that even now, he could not disclose his reasoning for letting Virgin continue in the franchise on an interim basis.
Commercial confidentiality has always been one of the things which has annoyed us in the campaign against HS2. While the DfT, MPs and proponents of HS2 have all argued that the WCML will ‘be full soon’, the DfT has consistently refused to actually release the figures for passenger loading on the basis of this commercial confidentiality. All we have had to go on, besides surveys, has been the Route Utilisation Strategy report looking into London stations, which shows that Euston is the quietest commuting destination, after HS1 of course! This idea that passenger numbers are a state secret may well change today though, as there is a court hearing discussing the release of this data. If the data is released, it will be interesting not only to see if the figures tally with the HS2 forecasts, but also if the figures given to the franchise bidders all match.
At yesterdays TSC meeting, it was revealed that although the DfT knew there were issues that would have left them open to legal challenge, they were initially confident, even after the Judicial Review into the awarding for the WCML franchise to First Group was lodged by Virgin, that these issues weren’t big enough for them to lose this legal challenge, a view which was rapidly revised. The pair admitted that the DfT have not worked to the professional standards that are required and that ‘information was given to different bidders in different ways.’
There were of course matters which have implications on HS2. Graham Stinger MP asked; “In order for First Group to get those figures, they would have to fill every seat. Did no-one spot that?”. Rutnam blamed process, but similar assumptions have been used for the HS2 modelling.
Ian Stewart MP asked the thirty-three billion pound question; “Can you assure us that the forecasting for HS2 is accurate?”. Patrick McLoughlin failed to face the facts, deciding to attack opponents of the scheme instead, saying that “There are lots of people against HS2 who will use any chink to attack it”, but admitted that there was more work to do. Philip Rutnam said that they had looked into the quality assurance on the economic modelling of HS2 and that he thought it was detailed and thorough.
He may have thought he hag got away with that, but a couple of minutes later Julie Hilling MP reminded him that he had been in front of them just a couple of weeks earlier, saying the WCML franchise process had been robust and thorough…….