Directly Operated Railways, the government’s operator of last resort, could control two of Britain’s intercity franchises by the end of the year after being asked to prepare to take over West Coast services

In less than 80 days’ time, Virgin’s 15-year reign on the West Coast Main Line will come to an end. But the preferred bidder for the new franchise, FirstGroup, is not the only organisation preparing to take over the intercity operation. Directly Operated Railways, the government’s in-house “operator of last resort” is getting ready to take control of the franchise, in the event that Virgin’s legal challenge delays the signing of its contract with FirstGroup.

Appearing before the transport select committee last week, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin confirmed that DOR is preparing contingency plans to take over the franchise on December 9. DOR already oversees the operation of the East Coast intercity franchise, which was abandoned by National Express Group in November 2009. McLoughlin told MPs that he didn’t know how long the judicial review of the government’s West Coast franchise decision would take. “If you talk to different lawyers you get different lengths [of time],” he said.

If DOR takes over West Coast, it would be the third time since privatisation that a franchise has come under direct state control (the first time was Southeastern Trains between 2003 and 2006), but the first time that it has happened to two train operating companies at the same time.

Answering a parliamentary question, McLoughlin said that the National Audit Office found that the Department for Transport spent £5.6m on termination of the East Coast franchise and mobilisation of a replacement operator, but he said: “I anticipate that the costs in this case should be lower, because, for example, DOR is already established.”

 

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