Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

I’m sorry. I’m sure there are many of you who are fed up reading about the great West Coast rail franchise disaster, but I fear it is an issue I must return to, not least because it is just about the only thing that is discussed in the corridors of Great Minster House and in the various drinking establishments in the area.

There seems to be a general expectation that more heads will roll beyond those who have already been suspended. I’m hearing that various colleagues have been hurriedly hiring lawyers, while the trade union has seen a recent surge in new members joining from this department! So who else ends up in the firing line remains to be seen, but with Linklaters appointed to advise the department and with an interrogation room set up in the basement of Great Minster House it’s anybody’s guess right now who the final victims will be. Of course, it’s important to say that the three that have been suspended, may yet be exonerated by the time our human resources people have finished their inquiries, but even if Kate Mingay does end up being cleared of any wrongdoing I would hazard a guess that she won’t be returning.

Meanwhile, the reputation of the entire department is called into question by MPs and the media. At a recent transport select committee inquiry into maritime safety issues, Graham Stringer, the prickly Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, made the point that officials in the department did not have a good record of being accurate with advice. So we are all damned by association are we? At least Stephen Hammond, our new parliamentary under secretary, was good enough to retort that it was unfair to cast aspersions on the quality and professionalism of the entire department. Thanks Stephen.

Still, I guess this collective label of being a bunch of incompetents is a cross we will have to bear for a while yet. But it is something that Philip Rutnam seems keen to address head on, having asked one of our directors, Jonathan Sharrock, to take on the task of restoring the department’s reputation! Heaven knows how he will go about doing this, and I wonder what he did to deserve being given this particular poisoned chalice! One thing’s certain. If he has the courage to venture to ask the outside world for opinions about the department and how it might restore its pride and reputation, he isn’t going to be short of any views!

I’m not sure I can really get my head round what has been decided for the future of the West Coast franchise. First, we have to negotiate an extension of up to 14 months to the current franchise with Virgin. How I would love to be a fly on the wall during those discussions. And what happens if the negotiations break down? Then there is to be a competition for an interim franchise before a further competition takes place for a long term contract, holding up the possibility that we could have three different operators for the franchise in the space of about three years. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if nobody competed against Virgin Trains for the interim contract anyway – and if that comes to pass we will look like right muppets! It’s comical really, especially when you remember that in 2009 Virgin Trains asked for a two-year extension to the franchise anyway which we rejected at the time but, by virtue of our own incompetence, have now effectively granted!

By the time you read this Patrick McLoughlin and Philip Rutnam will have appeared before the transport select committee for a grilling on what happened
and what went wrong, and Sam Laidlaw will have submitted his first interim report to ministers. Most select committees are pretty dull affairs but this particular session is going to be a box office sell out. I sure am glad I’m not going to have

to brief Patrick and Philip for this appearance, and if it goes badly for them I think we could see some blood on the carpet the following morning. Mind you, I can’t help feeling that the select committee may have been out of the starting blocks too soon on this one. At this stage it should be too easy for Patrick and Philip to bat away questions by saying it is still too soon to explain in full what happened or who is guilty – and they won’t want to prejudice any potential industrial tribunal hearings.

Still, as the song goes “always look on the bright side of life”!



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